'Holy Hell': Sundance Review

Holy Hell still 1 - H 2016
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
A privileged account that might have benefitted from an outsider's perspective as well.

A longtime cult member and many fellow defectors tell their story.

What's it like to be in a cult? Will Allen certainly knows, having followed a charismatic and mysterious Teacher from California to Austin and Hawaii over the course of two decades. Once the official filmmaker of "The Buddhafield," the disillusioned follower now offers Holy Hell, combining years' worth of footage with present-day interviews for an account of the group's progress from blissed-out delusion to scandalized disintegration. Though the material is juicy and the interviews heartfelt, the doc doesn't completely succeed in efforts to explain the spell this and similar groups cast on their acolytes; it will attract viewers at fests and on video, but leaves the door open for more penetrating accounts of cult psychology.

Fresh out of film school, Allen entered this community in California in 1985. From the start he made home movies of gatherings he attended, where we see scores of beautiful young white people frolicking in the woods, dancing with abandon. We see them flocking around their Teacher, also called Michel, giggling at his every little joke with an almost psychotic delight.

In voiceover and in present-day interviews with other members who left, Allen explains how Michel performed "shakti" rituals on his followers, borrowing Buddhist beliefs to explain what looks, in footage we see of the ceremony, like faith-healer hokum. A few years later he would offer some followers "The Knowing," a "direct experience of God" — stoking insecurity in those deemed not ready for enlightenment.

Though interviewees discuss the "LSD-like state" they experienced at these events, they can't make us understand how it was achieved. Attendees didn't knowingly take drugs, we're told, and there's no hint that food or water was laced. The suggestion is that everything relied on brainwashing and vulnerable young personalities — and this is one place viewers need to hear from a mental health professional, sociologist or other outsider who can shed some light on how such mass delusions work.

Allen moves on with a chronological account of his experience with the group, of how he became its A/V propagandist and Michel's assistant; other members were expected to "do service" for the group and its leader, but Allen was on call 24/7.

Was the handsome young gay man also Michel's lover? The doc is coy, saving revelations for the point in its story at which members began telling each other things they were supposed to keep to themselves. For most of Allen's tenure with the group, Michel preached abstinence: "He had transcended sex," we're told, and preferred the "orgasm of meditation."

Right. Watching videos of this preening narcissist, holding court in a tiny Speedo or rehearsing in drag for strange ballets they staged at the theater they built in Austin, any outsider can guess at what lies beneath the teaching. But many members couldn't, and those who were being manipulated suffered in silence. Highly emotional interviews chronicle the dramatic implosion of this iteration of the Buddhafield and lament the fact that it hasn't died: Having changed his name again, Michel now leads more than a hundred people on the island of Oahu.

Production company: WRA Productions

Director: Will Allen

Producers: Tracey Harnish, Alexandra Johnes, Michael Donaldson

Executive producers: Cheryl Sanders, Michael C. Dondaldson, Julian Goldstein

Directors of photography: Polly Morgan, Will Allen

Editors: Will Allen, Sean Jarrett

Composer: Giles Lamb

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (US Documentary Competition)

100 minutes