Last year, Sundance pulled a sneaky trick when announcing the documentary competition lineup, withholding the name of the filmmaker behind “Holy Hell,” said to be an exposé told from within a real-life West Hollywood cult. The secrecy suggested that the programmers might have found this year’s equivalent of 1999 found-footage horror sensation “The Blair Witch Project,” when in fact, something far scarier had landed in their laps: the inside story of how nearly 150 people were drawn into and brainwashed by a master narcissist who’d convinced them of his shamanic powers.
As it turned out, the film was directed by Will Allen, who had been the group’s videographer (and resident propagandist) for nearly 22 years, making him uniquely poised to assemble the most damning portrait possible of his former mentor, a vaguely Ramon Novarro-esque failed actor named Michel, who addressed his disciples in a strange, impossible-to-place accent and convinced them to abandon their jobs, their families and their homes in order to follow his teachings and receive what he called “the Knowing,” a form of intense communion in which they might meet God. When things went sour, Allen was armed with a wealth of footage to deconstruct his former idol. Like watching a takedown of Hitler by a disillusioned Leni Reifenstahl, what emerges is one of the decade’s strangest and most unsettling documentaries, especially given its as-yet-unwritten ending.
Whereas a less invested director might have either sensationalized the story or exploited the situation for its absurd comic value, Allen comes from a place of deep personal disillusionment, the way a sexually abused altar boy might attempt to reconcile his wounded faith. Though the doc plays like a thriller at times, especially in the paranoid aftermath of 1993’s notorious Branch Davidian standoff (which took place outside Waco, Texas, just 100 miles north of where the Buddhafield was then based in Austin), its power springs from the fact that it portrays the former Buddhafield members as relatively normal people — no more or less suggestible than your typical religious convert, with the same sort of insecurities and desires as most Americans. “It’s so common,” says Chris, one of 14 “survivors” to share their experiences on-camera. “Look around you, you’ve got a cult in your town, I almost guarantee you.”
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Allen himself joined the Buddhafield in 1985, fresh out of film school, and he was personally responsible for shooting nearly all the footage seen in the documentary — footage that’s all the more fascinating for having been cobbled together with corny, late-’80s public-access-TV effects to emphasize the state of spiritual ecstasy Michel inspired in his followers. Although Allen was basically making high-end VHS home movies for the group to rapturously relive at a later date, outsiders can’t help but see things through more skeptical eyes, especially when Michel makes his big-screen entrance.
Where his disciples saw an enlightened, childlike soul, we are confronted with a classic case of narcissism run amok. This strange, over-tanned bodybuilder is a walking contradiction: someone who rejected superficial earthly values in his teachings, but was so clearly dominated by them in his own life (as will later be corroborated, when we learn how he asked group members to test-drive certain plastic surgery operations before ordering them for himself).
The most obvious paradox between Michel’s preaching and what he actually practiced was his sex life: Here was a touchy-feely show-off who insisted that his followers reject carnal distraction and abstain from sex (“the orgasm of meditation, that’s the greatest orgasm”), who forbade them from dating and insisted that female members have abortions if they became pregnant, and yet he swanned around in an obscenely overstuffed Speedo, so extreme a caricature of the deeply closeted gay man that “Waiting for Guffman’s” Corky St. Clair looks downright well-adjusted by comparison. The film’s least surprising twist concerns what really happened during his paid hypnotherapy sessions, while its most entertaining involves clips from a handful of stag films he made while trying to get his acting career — as Jaime Gomez, a Venezuelan-born, Montreal-trained would-be matinee idol — off the ground. (You’ll never see “Rosemary’s Baby” the same again.)
Ironically for Michel, who clearly aspired to big-screen fame at one point in his career, his own narcissism proved his undoing. He clearly loved being filmed (though Allen learned to turn the cameras off whenever “the Teacher” lost his temper, leaving that side of Michel’s personality to our imaginations), casting himself as the star of numerous Buddhafield short films, music videos and dance performances. Now, via “Holy Hell,” his face finally appears front and center, blown up to frightening proportions. “To be a person is to be a mask, and you never know who you’re talking to behind that mask,” Michel preaches, and he may as well be talking about himself, so often do we find ourselves wondering what must be going on behind that waxy, empty stare.
The final segment of “Holy Hell” takes place after Allen has left the group, as the director and a handful of former members fly to Hawaii to confront Michel, who remains surrounded by zombie-like followers. To the extent that this egomaniac convinced nearly 150 people to “drop their minds” over the years, “Holy Hell” represents the courageous attempt by 15 of those troubled, but deeply relatable people to pick up and reassemble their consciousness on the other end.