Producers: Will Allen, Tracey Harnish, Alexandra Johnes
Stars: Will Allen, Michel Gomez, Cristala Allen, Gina Allen
What’s in a cult? Our culture is saturated with them. The Manson Family, Heaven’s Gate, and The People’s Temple (the site of the Jonestown Massacre) may be the most famous of American cults, but they’re hardly the only few. A cult is defined by three characteristics, all of which are rather vague: a charismatic leader, the use of “coercive persuasion,” and some form of exploitation. In movies, cults are glaringly suspicious. The leaders are always heavy-browed and blank-eyed, darkly hinting about “transcending Earth” or “becoming one” or something equally as ominous. But, if in real life cults were so obviously spotted, it’s safe to say that they would have died out long before now. Would you notice a cult if the leader demanded no sacrifices? If the fellow members were the smartest, most creative people you had ever met? If your siblings were also members?
When director Will Allen was forced to leave home after his mother learned that he was gay, he was unsure of where to turn. A fledgling filmmaker with little work—or disposable income—at twenty-two, he was faced with the prospect of imminent poverty. Luckily, his big sister was there to help—she had recently discovered a New Age alternative community in West Hollywood, where all troubles could be forgotten in the glow of a true communal life. As in any true utopia, peace and harmony reigned: Buddhafield was free from alienation, capitalist strife, and the messy complications of sex and romance, and demanded absolutely nothing from members besides their presence. Leaving Buddhafield was not frowned upon (as in Scientology), payment and sexual favors were not only unrequired, but outright refused (unlike in Manson’s family), and the spiritual faith that members shared was based only in the pursuit of enlightenment—free from the prejudice and disproportionately harsh punishments for those who subverted the faith that spawned violence in popular cults (as in the Children of God). What could go wrong?
The twenty-two years that Allen was a part of Buddhafield were spent as the group’s documentarian, recording significant events in the lives of members—though none of these were the conventions of marriage and birth, given that romance and sex were both discouraged as unnecessary, earthy distractions from the path to enlightenment—and producing propaganda supporting Buddhafield’s mission (which, unlike the propaganda of Scientology, was intended only for those already in Buddhafield). As such, HOLY HELL, Allen’s 2016 documentary from CNN Films, has been in the making over decades, which makes watching it a disorienting experience; viewers witness characters age as they stagnate in the same place, doing the same things, with the same man who leads them. That man is the most fascinating source of transformation in the film and, as is so often the case in cults, is the savior and downfall of his flock. That man for Buddhafield is Michel Gomez.
Michel’s outlandish journey from entertainer (his most recognizable role, if you call even go so far as to call it that, is a bit part as an extra in ROSEMARY’S BABY) to self-proclaimed prophet is engrossing, even insofar as it is secondary to the story of the cult itself (and, indeed, Will Allen and his two sisters, both the one who initially invited him to join and their other sister, who joined some time after Will did). The strange and subtle shifts in Michel as years pass and his mission changes—or, perhaps, becomes clearer to outsiders—were likely difficult to perceive in person, over decades, but are startling juxtaposed in film. The story as a whole, which Allen crafts from interviews with former members (including his sisters), the aforementioned propaganda videos (starring Michel, naturally), and various footage of life in Buddhafield, circles this man, literally and metaphorically. Michel, “the Teacher,” is more than a man. To the hopeful souls who once so confidently followed his lead, he is emblematic: of community, authority, beauty and then hideousness, jaw-dropping hypocrisy and, eventually, a nightmare that never quite leaves those who he touched. HOLY HELL is at first light and informative, gripping but hardly scary, but don’t be fooled: by the time you reach the end of the documentary, you too will be haunted . . . by Michel, but also by the close calls that occur each and every day.
- Mental illness (Narcissistic Personality Disorder)
- Rape and sexual assault (discussed)