'holy hell' documents 22 years of ecstasy and insanity inside a spiritual cult
Filmmaker Will Allen spent over two decades as a member of a spiritual group called The Buddhafield, founded by a charismatic dancer and bodybuilder in 1980s Los Angeles. His documentary about the experience, ‘Holy Hell’ (executive produced by Jared...
michel. photography will allen.
When the documentary Holy Hell first screened at Sundance, a journalist asked its director, filmmaker and former cult member Will Allen, "What were you thinking? Weren't you looking at the footage you were filming?"
"Of course I was looking at it," Allen tells me over Skype, a week ahead of the film's New York premiere, on May 21, "I was filming for 22 years." But no one who's in a cult thinks they're in a cult.
As a recent film school graduate adrift in 1980s Los Angeles, Allen began attending the meetings of a meditation group called The Buddhafield, on the recommendation of his sister. Led by a charismatic ex-actor and ballet dancer named Michel (known simply as "The Teacher"), the group maintained an idealistic philosophy of love, acceptance, and community. Shifting frequently, according to his whims, Michel's teachings drew from a patchwork of different religions and ancient texts including the Bhagavad Gita.
Filming his surroundings was second nature to Allen. And, over the course of the two decades he spent as a member of The Buddhafield — as the group migrated from Los Angeles to Austin and Hawaii — he captured the cult's gradual decline from idyllic hand-holding retreats in coastal California to paranoia, lies, and the discovery of the dark secrets that eventually led Allen and his friends to break with the group. In addition to documenting Michel's sheer oddity (his passion projects include staging elaborate ballets for himself to star in, constructing a large aviary, and sporting a wardrobe of revealing fluorescent hotpants), the film slowly lays bare the extent of his manipulation.
Now, over five years after leaving The Buddhafield, Allen sees Holy Hell as a means to explore and reclaim his experiences. He also hopes that the film will reach the few remaining members of The Buddhafield who still live with Michel in Hawaii.
At the time, you weren't shooting with the aim of exposing The Buddhafield or Michel. How did you repurpose the footage?
It was really empowering, honestly. I was able to re-explore every experience and what was happening beneath everything. Because I only photographed all the beautiful stuff. I had just kind of made propaganda. Now I wanted to go back and tell the entire story, and it gave everything that I had done purpose.
Four years ago, when I started to look back at some of [Michel's] teachings, when he was speaking to the group with the microphone, I called my friend and said, "I'm almost agreeing with some of the stuff he's saying, I can't look at this." Because I couldn't find footage of what was underneath it. We had to bring that to the film with the interviews.
Were other members of the group enthusiastic about being in the film?
I only approached people who were close to me and were sympathetic. I wanted to understand their story. Because part of our problem was that no one talked to each other during this period in intimate ways. Now there's almost like a statute of limitations and we can all talk about it. And that's where it became very interesting. We wanted to expose something we'd been hiding for so long.
What was the turning point for you, when did you start to feel disillusioned?
My disillusionment started really early. We all battled with our disillusionment. That was our daily chore — to not doubt, and to go beyond our critical thinking. But even though I saw bad things and felt horrible things, it wasn't until my fellow brothers and sisters started to get empowered and fight back that I could also. As soon as we could have a voice, we had power.
When you're looking back at the footage now, are there moments when you really just ask yourself why?
Yes. But no one was perfect. Everyone had their own quirky personality and so did The Teacher. We were all very loving and forgiving and unconditional. So when I look back at it, I remember that part of me that was very open and loving, and accepting of everything. I had gone there to try and let go of all my opinions — which is a good idea to do for a few weeks, just not forever! But I don't look back on it and think we were weird, I look back and think he was weird. We all fell in love with what he was talking about. He had this amazing charisma.
A lot of what he teaches is very appealing. Are there positive things that you learned also?
These were ancient teachings that he was pulling from, all sorts of different theologies and philosophies and religions. He was able to feed it to us in this digestible way of just learning how to be unconditional and love and be in this moment and that's one of the first reasons why I stayed initially. I felt immediate acceptance from everyone. And I am very grateful that I've learned to have that, because it's what we're all looking for. I came from a family where we didn't have that intimacy even though we were close, and then I found this new family where everyone talks about everything and no one cares if you're gay or not or whatever, it's just not a big deal. It's more important what your heart is feeling. So we bonded with each other very quickly.
After things fell apart, was there any acrimony between the family members?
Because of all the turmoil, nobody trusted each other. Nobody knew what was true, and The Teacher was behind everything. When your whole foundation is crushed and you're betrayed, and everything becomes half-true, you don't trust anybody.
Would you say you're still a spiritual person?
I do have a spiritual nature, we all do. But I try not to add concepts or thoughts. All of us borrow thoughts, from other people and religions. But ultimately spirituality is beyond ideas. I've had to reevaluate all of my thoughts and desires. Because I borrowed his for so long.
Everyone in the footage is glowing. Did Michel only recruit exceptionally beautiful people?
It's a good question! First of all, I can't give Michel credit for finding all the people. We all found each other. But everyone became more beautiful when they meditated. It's just the way it was. You become more harmonious with who you're supposed to be. I saw people who came and within six months they were gorgeous! It wasn't physically, it was this emanating beauty.
What's happened since you finished the film? Have you had any contact with current members of The Buddhafield?
A lot's happening. I'll be honest with you, there are sides of him that people just don't see. All of his new disciples, like us, they're not bad, they're just naive and trusting. And they don't listen to anybody else. That's why I made a movie.
In the film, you see that when everything came out it got very confusing. [Michel] started lying and saying it wasn't true. And he's saying that now. He's telling people, "Don't go see this movie, it's not true." I don't know if they're going to see the movie, but I do know they're very angry about it.
Murti, the older gentleman in the film, with the grey hair who's a yoga teacher, he was [in the group] for 28 years, and he still lives in Hawaii, where The Teacher lives. He got a death threat. He's trying to get his life back together but the group attacks him because he speaks outwardly about them. One day this bald, muscled, six-foot-four guy comes out of nowhere and says he's going to kill him if he brings the movie to the island. They went to the police and there were two warrants out for this guy's arrest. It turns out he's [Michel's] bodyguard. All this stuff is repeating itself.
We have to wait and see what happens. I hear that [Michel] hasn't left the island. I thought he'd be gone. He's waiting to see if the movie goes away, if anyone cares. This just needs to stop. There needs to be a completion of this. We let this go on for ten years after it didn't need to. And people have been hurt in those last ten years. So now I'm trying to be active.
"Holy Hell" premieres in New York on May 21, during the 20th Annual Rooftop Films Summer Series, followed by a theatrical release on May 26.
Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Photography Will Allen