“All of my footage I memorized because I lived it and shot it, so it was my journal in a way,” says Will Allen, director of his strange but true documentary of a small cult formed in the ’80s, of which Allen was a key member. “I was only able to take some of them, but the films I left behind when I left, I knew I’d never look at them again.”
Holy Hell tells the story of the Buddhafield, a group of people drawn to the sunny enclaves of Southern California and to one man specifically — the Teacher, a bronzed, muscled Svengali in gym shorts. The Teacher is like so many gurus who’ve come before him and after: completely self-absorbed and charismatic enough to sink his claws into impressionable youth.
“Making a living wasn’t the priority,” Allen says. “Survival wasn’t the priority. I could live in a relaxed state of mind, and a lot of us long for that still. Part of our theology was a little Peter Pan complex. I hate that, but it’s true.”
When Allen’s sister brought him to Buddhafield, he was a fresh film-school graduate whose parents had ostracized him when he came out to them. The Teacher offered him a new family. Allen started filming his guru and new friends, and the Teacher put his foot down. Even though he’d been a former actor and dancer and was obsessed with plastic surgery and looking good, their leader was wary of the cameras.
“I fought to make these films. He never wanted me to,” Allen says. “I had no money. It was very frustrating. We had the lowest-quality material to work with, and it’s a challenge of how much you can do with so little. I wasn’t a very good filmmaker, because I had given up the ambition of being a filmmaker, but my professionalism didn’t change. I had to honor that creative process.”
The results of this process are some stunningly strange propaganda films Allen then cut to form the foundation of this documentary. What’s so interesting about the film is you can see the followers, posed by Allen, rapt in their ecstasy in that moment, but then see them in interviews as their present-day selves, grappling with their lingering confusion; there was a happiness in those times, and a family, however mercurial the patriarch was. And the patriarch in this instance is nearly cartoonish — a ballet-dancing boss who forces his followers to dazzle him with elaborate plays, forbids sex and orders his minions to test out experimental plastic surgery procedures on themselves to see how they look. It’s a matter of time before the Teacher inspires a fictional villain.
Unfortunately, when Allen and others realized how utterly evil the Teacher was, they had to leave everything behind. After decades of abstaining from the pleasures of the outside world — books, magazines, movies, clothes and even jobs — the prospect of re-finding these things is both exciting and cripplingly overwhelming. Allen was lucky, because during his time with the Teacher, he’d been able to negotiate for the films he made and to read a little publication that kept him connected to the outside world.
“LA Weekly was the only thing I got to read. It’s the only thing I wouldn’t give up. You couldn’t suppress the LA Weekly,” Allen says. “And when I left, [the films I made there] helped me keep my ego intact. The part of me that felt mine was all my films. Everyone had to start fresh and new, but everyone had to ask themselves what they felt about everything, not what the group thought. When I started researching the documentary, [the others who left] sent me all the stuff they had. They had mostly photos of their friends and the times they spent. But they threw away the Teacher pictures. There weren’t any in there.”
It’s this selective memory that helps the ex-cult members carry on, somehow filling in 20 years of missing résumé information, burdened by other tarnished memories of rampant sexual abuse and subtle mind control. Allen says the hardest part of making this documentary, however, was “proving” the abuses.
“One of the most surprising things was trying to find footage of [the Teacher] where he was giving it all away, where you could see the dark side of him,” Allen says. “I’m not talking visually but semantics. Every time I turned the camera on, he knew it. It was hard to get those moments where we’ll have the audience hear him say this. We had to bring that to the story in the interviews. I was watching through all this footage, and I thought for sure I’d be able to hear him say something that would damn him, because I can remember him saying those things, but he was so very careful when the camera was on. It’s hard to catch him being honest.”
It may seem like eyewitness testimony of these abuses from numerous sources would be enough to damn a man who dares call himself the Teacher, but as evidenced in a vitriolic comments section of a months-old article announcing that Allen was in fact the director of the mysterious Buddhafield film, the Teacher has some trolls. One user in particular accused Allen of being just as bad as their leader. In fact, Allen was the Teacher’s assistant, a kind of mouthpiece who enjoyed an elite position. But with that position came ample opportunity for abuse, something Allen’s still coming to terms with and that the outside world doesn’t truly understand — can you willingly participate and still be a victim?
In recent years, fictional cults have actually dominated in film and television storylines. Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011), Ti West’s The Sacrament and Sal Batmanglij’s Sound of my Voice (2011) terrify, while P.T. Anderson’s The Master (2012), Hulu’s The Path and HBO's The Leftovers fascinate. The Duplass brothers’ Manson Family Vacation even attempts infusing some hazy comedy into the genre. On the documentary front, 2012 brought seminal Father Yod cult documentary The Source Family from Jodi Wille and Maria Demopoulos, in 2015 there was Alex Gibney’s Going Clear, and other docs on even more cults are underway, including Mikaela Shwer’s upcoming The Synanon Experiment. (All of these cults have origins in SoCal, so … yay?) Allen sees this influx of cult zeitgeist as akin to the way we now openly address child abuse. Time has made it okay, and we’re only now just hearing about the breadth of mind-control colonies.
We, as an audience, have the capacity to watch these films and say with great certainty, “These are cults,” but it’s near impossible to visually show why and how these groups continue in real life, and maybe that’s why we’re so fascinated by them. The number of cults active in just the past 30 years of U.S. history are enough that every film fest in the nation could premiere a different, important documentary about cults, and we’d still have more material than we’d know what to do with. And people would still be joining cults. Nobody who joins these “spiritual communities” knows that’s what’s happening, and in Buddhafield’s case, they even had a tenet against cults.
“There was a really blistering question that happened to me at Sundance,” Allen says. “And I chose her, and it was the second showing of the movie, and she said, ‘What were thinking? You shot all this footage, didn’t you ever look at it? What did you see? How could you not have seen this?’ And she was angry. It threw me off how angry she was, angry at what we did. I was like, ‘They were like our home movies, and we weren’t looking at the bad stuff. Yes, the irony is we didn't’ see it.’ That’s why this movie exists… because we didn’t see it.”
Now, in the regular world, Allen’s attempting to see humor in the situation, but it’s impossible to just throw away two decades of your life. His past, which past few people understand, outside of domestic abuse survivors, has made romantic relationships a challenge. Lack of trust comes up a lot — trusting others, but mostly trusting himself.
“When I went to the group and I was 22,” Allen says. “I felt like I had to unlearn everything I learned up to that point. It was fresh and there were no rules, but of course they were just different rules. Twenty-two years later, I’m relearning everything I had to learn before. But, you know, 20 years from now, I’ll probably have to do it again.”
Holy Hell opens today at Laemmle's Monica Fourplex.