In recent years we’ve developed a sort of cult-like curiosity around cults, presented in both fiction and non-fiction form. Unpacking the reasoning behind this compulsion is a bit more difficult than simply submitting to these images (which are often beguiling in their depictions of humanity); the audience is allowed to comfortably watch these ostensibly misguided lives at a distance.
“How could someone dedicate their existence to a crackpot sci-fi writer who holds the Guinness World Record for most published works? What a sad schmuck!” There’s something unseemly about these endeavors, perhaps because they rarely lack insight into why someone, vulnerable and rudderless, may give themselves to a higher power. In this regard, “Holy Hell” — despite its unprecedented access — finds itself oscillating back and forth between mediocrity and illumination.
The film begins in 1985 with Will Allen, a then-recent film school graduate who felt unsatisfied with his collegiate experience. Raised Catholic and openly gay, Will was forced to deal with contradictions early on. The world he thought he knew seem to no longer make sense. In search of answers, he decided to join The Buddhafield, a Los Angeles area spiritual group that promised fulfillment, love, and happiness.
Putting his film degree to use, Will was immediately enlisted as the group’s videographer, where he documented day-to-day life inside this new-age cult. In the beginning it was bliss: Led by a middle-aged man known as “Michel,” the group was filled with “artistic hippies,” as one former member recalls. There’s plenty of footage of the Buddhafield members splayed on beaches, jumping into the water, laughing and embracing one another. Michel would talk about how he had a master who led him to a great spiritual awakening — an awakening, he assured his growing constituency, that they too would experience in due time.
Allen — who serves as both the director and producer of “Holy Hell” — makes a calculated choice to intersperse his archival images with talking-head interviews of former Buddhafield members. The former element is the documentary’s true highlight; rarely have we seen such unvarnished shots of life inside a burgeoning cult. Everyone involved had bought into what Michel was selling. There are plenty of sequences that show people believing they’re undergoing a spiritual transformation, complete with lives forever changed and improved.
But what the footage most interestingly reveals is a vile guru who preys, abuses, and swallows up the impressionable. Michel — whose name changes throughout the 22 years Allen is part of the group — is one of the most megalomaniacal humans ever captured on film. He’s vain and despotic, endlessly seeking adoration from those who believe he’s waded into the unknown and come out the other side a god amongst men.
“Holy Hell,” however, does a sub-par job probing the psyches of both Buddhafield’s leader and its members. Yes, Michel is diabolical, but why not confront the reasons why his followers remained so docile in his presence? Michel is a former actor and amateur ballet dancer, but why not unearth what might have made him want to lead a subservient group to destruction?
What also remains opaque are Michel’s spiritual beliefs. In “Going Clear,” Alex Gibney made sure to carefully lay out the intricacies of Scientology (the various “levels”, the etymology, the significance of certain symbols). As far as “Holy Hell” is concerned, Michel’s theology seems rooted more in Kanye West (“I am a God”) than L. Ron Hubbard. “I found the answer,” Michel says, “and the answer is… I am God.” It’s unclear whether this means we are all gods in our right, or if just he is. Of course, Michel is less of a god and more of an unemployed actor (he had bit parts in “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Carnal Knowledge”) who, as one ex-member notes, “stumbled upon the role of a lifetime.”
Does that make Michel — and in turn, Buddhafield — a protracted performance piece, or are we merely watching a man’s descent into madness? What the film ultimately becomes, though, is impatient and rushed. It hopscotches over large swaths of the 1990s and early 2000s, where members starting sniffing around Michel’s dishonorable past. However, there’s ultimately not enough intimate material to sustain interest. A
Allen has a tendency to paint in broad strokes, and it shows later on in the movie. Candid shots of the Buddhafield turn into bland wallpaper, devoid of conversation and emotion. The close-ups of Michel’s face — mangled, injected with botox with a dash of mascara — are still hard to stomach, though. He’s a troubled man driven by egotism. And yet how could one person elicit so much pleasure and pain for so many?
I wish “Holy Hell” told me.