Directed by Will Allen
Hindsight may be 20/20, though retroactive awareness almost never comes with peace of mind. Take Will Allen, the filmmaker behind Holy Hell, a documentary that suggests what the sensation of slow-dawning-horror might look like as a movie. For nearly a quarter of a century—from the mid-80s to the mid-to-late-00s—Allen dedicated himself to the Buddhafield, a California-based spiritual group led by a muscled pseudo-Adonis named, at first, Michel, and later, Andreas.
Allen, a film school graduate and fledgling director, became the group’s videographer, as well as close confidante of Michel/Andreas. So the pool of footage he has to draw from is enormous, and each image is charged with his own freshly informed anxieties about his experiences. For make no mistake, the Buddhafield was a cult. Perhaps a cult that began with the best of intentions as a rejection of Reagan-era self-absorption, but one that ultimately imploded due to revelations of psychological and sexual abuse orchestrated by its sinister, narcissistic founder. Allen was lucky to escape with a modicum of sanity and dignity.
Holy Hell is a purgative and an act of atonement, not just for Allen but also for the former Buddhafield members (two of them the director’s own siblings) who are interviewed throughout. Their stories echo each other—initial bliss seguing into a creeping, in-the-moment inscrutable dread. One male subject recalls a private session with Michel/Andreas that culminated in rape, and how his mind, at the time, justified it as a spiritual lesson. Hate and love for his teacher intermingled until he felt he was going completely mad.
It’s easy for an outsider to look at all the footage of Michel/Andreas—with his pouty lips, thousand-yard stare and fondness for Speedos—and wonder how anyone could take him seriously. Allen, though, structures the film in such a way that it mimics what a cult member might experience, any initial skepticism negated by the Buddhafield leader’s strange magnetism (this viewer admits to feeling a twinge of awe, mostly cinephilic, when it’s revealed Michel/Andreas has a turn-toward-the-camera bit part in Rosemary’s Baby).
But then, of course, comes the wake-up call: The paranoia that drives the group to set up shop in Austin, Texas. The bizarre love of ballet that results in the cult erecting their own theater, each production rehearsed for extended periods and performed only for themselves. And finally the email that undoes it all, exposing Michel/Andreas as a false prophet—though he fascinatingly lives to lead another day. The movie’s tensest and most layered moment comes when Allen films his old master undercover, where once he could photograph him openly and adoringly. It’s to Holy Hell‘s credit that you can’t quite tease out which images, in-cult or out-of-cult, are more truthful. The (al)lure of enlightenment remains.