Director: Will Allen
Cinematographers: Will Allen & Polly Morgan
Composers: Giles Lamb & Cody Westheimer
Cults will always make for fascinating subjects both in fiction and nonfiction. What leads people to becoming a member of these groups? How do they not see how crazy they seem? Why do they stay even when things become abusive/violent/dangerous/disturbing? Could this happen to me? Would I be able to resist or would I succumb? Those last two questions and the fear they provoke are what I believe to be the biggest reason as to why we find cults and alternative groups to be so fascinating. We try to identify if we would also drink the proverbial Kool-Aid.
Will Allen was 22 in 1986 and had just been shunned by his mother for being gay. Homeless and unemployed, the filmmaking major sought refuge with his sister, who for the previous few months had begun to frequent a meditation group in West Hollywood, California. The group, which would soon begin to refer to itself as Buddhafield, had a charismatic and enigmatic leader in Michel, and Will took immediately to him and the rest of the members. Will’s filmmaking abilities made him a favorite of Michel’s, and very quickly he became the group’s videographer. This all result in the footage which now makes up the documentary Holy Hell.
The aspect that makes Buddhafield members so interesting is that the membership was young, extremely attractive, in shape, and seemingly privileged, white, and happy. Aside from members like Will who was cast out due to his sexuality, none of the members had any real reason to escape from their lives. They just happened upon a group of people who wanted to live, enjoy life, and share that joy with other like-minded people.
Michel, on the other hand, makes all this somewhat hard to believe – as he reads as a very bizarre man. He mostly only wears a speedo throughout the footage, he appears to have gone multiple times under the surgical scalpel, and his mannerisms are somewhat bizarre and unpredictable. But if one is looking for a inscrutable and ambiguous spiritual guru I guess he fits the bill quite nicely.
As is the case with all cult accounts, things start out heavenly and then slowly at first and then precipitously all at once, things become frightening and horrifying. Buddhafield is no different. But at that point, as always, the stakes are no longer small – people are invested, they have nowhere else to go, they are chained to an ideology and a way of life, and the brainwashing is complete.
Holy Hell provides an insider’s look into the goings on of one of the lesser known cults, but it is a fascinating and horrifying one at that. It may not offer the resolution it thinks it does, and the filmmaking is quite amateurish, but sometimes the story trumps style. This is one of those cases. The documentary is definitely worth watching. And try to ask yourself while viewing: what would you do? Are you sure?