Looking at a Cult
Will Allen’s documentary “Holy Hell” looks at the rise and fall of a spiritual cult as seen though a former member’s twenty years as that he spent with the sect. We see stunningly personal archival footage and revealing contemporary interviews with past cult members. In 1985, film school graduate Will Allen joined a spiritual community in West Hollywood, which was led by a mysterious leader they called the “Teacher”. Allen became quickly involved and immersed. He began to document life inside the group and over time, hidden truths about their Teacher began to surface until finally his darkest secrets were revealed. The documentary contains some of 22 years of intimate archival footage that take us on quite an emotional journey behind closed doors and into a world that could not have been imagined by both insiders and outsiders.
Allen was not alone in discovering the sect called The Buddhafield, a commune of men and women living under the guidance of The Teacher, or Michel and he was one of the original members in the 1980s. He had just graduated from and, having just graduated from film school and was soon caught up in it. His documentary shows how its members (who appear as talking heads throughout) became shocked when they began to realize that their leader who appeared to be filled with compassion was actually a manipulative rapist who was in love with himself.
We meet some twelve former members through contemporary interviews, with their first names accompanying a quick statement about their involvement in Buddhafield. Since we meet them at the beginning of the film, we get the chance to learn from each why he/she joined the commune. The central idea of Buddhafield operated on the deification of Michel, who told his followers that he had what he referred to as “the knowing,” and that those chosen to likewise have “the knowing” would be given direct access and exposure to God. We see Michel proselytizing in front of his congregation and these clips are intercut with various statements from members such as one who shows her frustration that she was continually denied “the knowing” even though she had given the sect many years of unwavering devotion. Other former members speak about Michel’s magnetism instead of his ideas as being responsible for their participation in the Buddhafield. This, of course, brings the irrational answer of guidance to enlightenment and answers to the usual questions of why we are here. For these questioners, Michel gave them an alternative to religion as we know it and he claimed that he was capable of offering actual, rather than manufactured, transcendence.
It took Allen 22 years to break away from the cult and Michel who was later known as Andreas (real name: Jaime Gomez). Allen and more than 150 others were slow to realize that the Teacher who preached Zen-like, antisexual self-denial was running a major scam. Allen’ had an advantage in that he was named the official documenter of Buddhafield. In the fascinating footage we see a megalomaniac who genuinely inspired his early disciples (almost all of whom were white with great bodies). Michel drove them to participate in complex, theatre and ballet pieces that only they would see. Allen’s film uses the conventional TV approach, holding back allegations of sexual abuse as long as possible and in a sense this is a film of inversion.
Will Allen is the director and “star” of this documentary in which he shares his experience as a young man when he was trying to understand his existence and the mystery of the universe. We also note that it was Michel’s narcissism that fueled the cult. As members keep reiterating their betrayal and unwavering adamancy that “we trusted him,” Allen never turns his camera inward to ask why those involved were willing to give themselves over to a person who was so determined to find self-gratification.
Revelations of Michel’s sexual misconduct with numerous members do not really surprise us because it’s made clear early on that he was nothing more than a psychologically disturbed charlatan who was well versed in the use of clinically obfuscating rhetoric. His promise of offering “the knowing” and providing that his members could be cleansed through group rituals and other coded and meaningless exercises was certainly deceitful. Allen, however, posits his deceit as a shocker which makes me wonder just how aware he was of what was going on. It seems to me that this is more a kind of revenge than anything else even though it is fascinating to watch.
Allen is now completely broken apart from the group and he sought to confront Michel on the streets of Los Angeles about his lies. Allen and other members seem to still be in denial about their own culpability and are pictured to be in a kind victimhood where those who support and endorse an obvious fraud aren’t held accountable for their own naïveté. Because Michel’s abuse is attributed to his narcissism and he is seen to be carrying the burden of guilt throughout the documentary. As former cult members reiterate their betrayal and unwavering adamancy that “we trusted him,” Allen instead of turning his camera on himself to ask why those involved were willing to give themselves over to a person so obviously hell-bent on self-gratification ignore this.
Years earlier, Allen came as gay to his parents and his mother kicked him out of the house. Will’s sister was already a member of “The Buddhafield”. Michel, who liked to sport Speedos and Ray-Bans, was sexually exciting to him so he decided to join her. Michel used basic Eastern tenets of living in the now with no judgment to guide his followers. When Will joined, he was made the filmmaker for the group and was to record everything for posterity, so he had a close-up of the goings on. Everything seemed to be going along well with naked pool parties, orgies and the like but by the fourth year, things started to get dark. Michel had tasted power and realized that he could manipulate his followers any way he wanted. It was then that no sex was allowed among members, no books, no TV and no radio. Michel had developed what he called “The Knowing Session,” as a way to find enlightenment and sex was involved. As passed, despite some negative feelings by some of the members, a kind of mass hysteria developed as everyone fell into line with the more and more bizarre practices and demands of Michel. It became one of those things where no one wanted to admit what he/she really felt. Yet by 2001, people started to question and wanted to leave, but when they did, they were demonized. Michel told those who wanted to leave that if they left, something bad would happen to them. And then in 2006, it came out that Michel had been having sex with all of the young men all along, despite the fact he acted like he was asexual and didn’t want anyone else having sex.
As the public became aware of stories about cults, pressure was put on Michel and his followers, so he moved the group from L.A. to Austin. There he decided everyone would build a theatre and learn ballet and put on a show that eventually was performed only for cult members. We learn that Michel was once a dancer with the Oakland Ballet but we never learn whether becoming a cult leader was part of his life plans. It appears that when megalomania set in, his life changed. We then learn that Michel had been a porn actor under the name of Jaime Gomez who came to porn after having had a small part in “Rosemary’s Baby“. With this new revelation, the group fell apart and Michel disappeared. Will eventually tracked him down in Hawaii where he had started ANOTHER CULT, now calling himself Ryji which means God King. Will is able to confront Michel who feels no guilt and remains unrepentant.
Watching the film, we see and hear from ex-members who share why they were drawn in and at the end of the film, there is a montage of those who stayed, those who left and what happened to them. We get to see a cult grow and how it all happens. Those who were members were smart, good-looking young people searching for something more and finding a charlatan instead. If you have ever wondered why someone would join a cult, this is the film to see.