As someone recalls in “Holy Hell,” members of Buddhafield used to joke with one another, “If we’re in a cult, at least it’s a good one.” Will Allen, the director of “Holy Hell,” actually leaves some ambiguity to the question of whether there can be such a thing, even as he watches the one he participated in implode and destroy the lives of many of its members over a 22-year period beginning in 1985. Allen has a unique perspective – not only as someone who once believed in the virtue of being part of such a community, but also the unofficial videographer that collected footage over the years that charts Buddhafield rise and fall.
This access proves to be a double-edged sword in “Holy Hell,” as Allen is forced to indulge in some awkward (and arguably unnecessary) narrative contortions to turn his experience into a movie, yet for those fascinated by cults or even just supreme narcissists, you’ll find the kind of unadulterated joy that the disciples of Buddhafield ultimately did not. Those aware of the premise of “Holy Hell” before seeing it might be smirking to themselves as the “Ooga Chakas” of Blue Swede’s “Hooked on a Feeling” start to play over images of nubile young men and women raise their hands up to the sky on mountain tops in, of all places, Park City, Utah, coming together for an event called The Knowing in which their speedo-clad, immaculately tan leader called Teacher has promised them a direct connection with God. But Allen lays the groundwork that Teacher may have actually been onto something as he lays hands on his disciples, who tremble in his presence. Even without being touched by a higher power, the group, who begin to appear one by one in present-day interviews, seems to have found strength by joining a cause bigger than themselves, eating organically, abstaining from sex and pitching in money from their material lives to build a small empire in West Hollywood (then Austin, Texas) to lead religious lives.
However, something seems off from the start about Teacher, who delivers words in small parcels with a quasi-Hindu accent and has a passion for ballet. “Holy Hell” doesn’t dig into the origins of how this man who’s more colloquially known as Michel actually started Buddhafield, sticking solely to Allen’s experience of it after being recruited by his sister Amy, but he’s been successful – to the point of building a 150-person strong community – and he is more than happy to have Allen record it, both for posterity and to pump up his own ego. In fact, it is the latter desire that leads to his undoing, as members begin to question the work they’re doing for Teacher and his seemingly contradictory behavior when he refuses to let members indulge in many of the pleasures that he does.
Allen attempts to relate this in a way that replicates his psychology rather than actual fact, a gamble that results in the audience likely knowing where this is all headed before anyone in the film does, not to mention the feeling of being manipulated – when serious allegations are leveled by ex-members as they head for the doors, it’s treated as a plot twist that doesn’t have the impact the filmmaker was probably going for. Still, after being so respectful of the guiding principles behind Buddhafield and those who bought into it throughout the film, “Holy Hell” is quite potent in considering the power of belief, both by tracking members who stay after a majority of members come to believe Teacher is a fraud and pondering his own complicity by lying to himself and others through his work as a filmmaker. It’s a particularly nice touch that Allen and cinematographer Polly Morgan film the present-day interviews in environments that say something about the former members they speak to, often that Buddha’s Field was just a detour on an ongoing search for spiritual enlightenment with the candles and stray Buddha statues they have in the background.
Allen’s lack of cynicism about the 22 years of his life that many would call misspent may strike some as naive while others might feel it’s refreshing since so few films have approached the subject of cults from that angle. The filmmaker still has fun, showing the ridiculous fruit salad trays one member made to appease the teacher (you’ve probably never seen kiwis and pineapple arranged to look like The Last Supper before) and the tony theater built in Austin where Buddhafield members would perform one-night-only ballet performances only for themselves. But Allen strikes the right tone in giving the subject its due and never making “Holy Hell” so personal as to feel like he’s exacting some revenge or being too sympathetic. Though the filmmaker may ask himself whether enduring the personal nightmare of collecting footage for “Holy Hell” was worth it, it’s certainly rewarding for an audience.