How the Sundance Film Festival helped ‘Holy Hell’ filmmaker find his way back from a cult
The interview is over, the goodbyes have been said, but then Will Allen realizes he has one more thing he wants to say.
“Do you know what Joseph Campbell wrote about the hero’s journey?” he asks. “It’s the return that’s the hardest part, reintegrating into the world, but it’s so important. The hero adds value by telling what he found, and that’s the value I have right now, with this story, this film.”
Don’t misunderstand. It’s not that filmmaker Allen, an innately modest man further conditioned by years of doing service to others, necessarily thinks of himself in the heroic mold. It’s just that the sense of mission that has sustained him through the four years it’s taken to make “Holy Hell” is strong. And no wonder.
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Because “Holy Hell” is told largely via extensive footage Allen shot at the time, the film has the uncanny effect of showing us what a cult looks like from the inside, how appealing it can be to those seeking enlightenment, and with after-the-fact interviews how bitter the aftermath can feel if things fall apart.
“I was with my teacher from 1985 to 2007, half my life, from age 22 to 44,” says Allen, now 53. “I had to unlearn things when I entered it; we were told we had to reprogram bad ideas, and when I left, I had to unlearn everything I’d learned there.”
Alone among the more than 100 features described in the Sundance catalog, “Holy Hell” does not have a director or screenwriter listed. With Allen’s teacher still active but in another state and with the film’s producers feeling what Allen calls “concern about some people in the group,” secrecy was deemed the wisest policy.
Allen describes himself as “confused and burnt out” when he got out of film school in 1985. “I came back home to Newport Beach, I thought maybe I didn’t want to make movies, I wanted to find myself, figure out who I was. I’ve always been fascinated by the philosophical, by spiritual concepts and questions like ‘Who are we? Why are we here?’
“Then my mother found out I was gay and kicked me out of the house. At that point, my sister invited to me to join a meditation group she’d been going to for nine months and was excited to introduce me to.”
That group, which eventually grew to more than 100 members and took the name Buddhafield, was led by a man named Michel whose palpable charisma, even in the Speedo swimsuits he favored, is visible in the footage Allen shot at the time. The film does not accuse the cult leader of any crime, and he is never confronted by members during the movie.
“The teacher talked so elegantly, he was smart, funny, irreverent,” the director recalls. “He made us feel we were OK as we were, and he offered the promise of enlightenment.”
Very visible on film, and a lure for Allen as well, was the warm community the devotees formed. But once Allen, at the teacher’s command, was made part of the group’s inner circle, things began to look different.
“It was an emotionally tumultuous situation. The more I got around him, there was no pleasing this person,” the filmmaker remembers. “There were no boundaries. He acted as our therapist as well as our guru. We were supposed to tell him everything.” Eventually, Allen says, the teacher manipulated him into a sexual relationship as well, “a confusing thing which came with a lot of angst.”
The festival store on Main Street in Park City, Utah, during the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.(Dave Mangels / Getty Images)
Robert Redford, founder and president of the Sundance Institute, speaks at the premiere of “Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You.”(Danny Moloshok/Invision/AP)
Director Nate Parker, left, actors Armie Hammer, Penelope Ann Miller and Chike Okonkwo discuss “The Birth of a Nation” at the Deadline.com panel.(Neilson Barnard / Getty Images for Samsung)
Producer Laura Rister, left, actor Boyd Holbrook, writer-director Jason Lew, actors the Intervention Happy Hour at the Samsung Studio.(Neilson Barnard / Getty Images for Samsung)
Music composer Jay Wadley, left, and general manager of St. Regis Deer Valley Edward Shapard attend Rand Luxury Hosts cocktail reception.(Vivien Killilea / Getty Images for Rand Luxury)
Actress Chloe Sevigny, left, and Glamour Editor in Chief Cindi Leive attend Glamour’s Women Rewriting Hollywood Lunch.(Jason Merritt / Getty Images for Glamour)
Director Jacqueline Lyanga attends Glamour’s Women Rewriting Hollywood Lunch.(Jason Merritt / Getty Images for Glamour)
Director of Sundance John Cooper, left, director Anne Fontaine and producer Eric Altmayer attend the “Agnus Dei” premiere.(Nicholas Hunt / Getty Images for Sundance Film Festival)
Actress Kristen Stewart, left, and director and writer Kelly Reichardt at the premiere of “Certain Women.”(Danny Moloshok / Invision)
“Lovesong” cast members Brooklyn Decker, from left, Jena Malone and Riley Keough pose alongside director So Yong Kim and her daughter Sky Ok Gray at the premiere of the film.(Chris Pizzello / Invision )
Actresses Jenny Slate, left, and Zoe Kazan pose at the premiere of “Joshy.”(Arthur Mola / Invision )
Director Jeff Baena and actress Aubrey Plaza at the premiere of “Joshy.”(Arthur Mola / Invision )
Kevin Smith, left, director of “Yoga Hosers,” and cast member Jason Mewes.(Chris Pizzello / Invision )
Actors Ralph Garman, from left, Jason Mewes, Austin Butler and Justin Long at the “Yoga Hosers” cast party.(Evan Agostini / Invision )
Director Kevin Smith with his daughter, actress Harley Quinn Smith, at the “Yoga Hosers” cast party.(Evan Agostini / Invision )
Recording artist Questlove, left, and director Spike Lee at the “Michael Jackson’s Journey From Motown to Off the Wall” premiere.(Valerie Macon / AFP/Getty Images)
Bryce Dallas Howard, director of the short film “Solemates,” poses before a screening of the film.(Chris Pizzello / Invision/Associated Press)
Actor John Krasinski walks along Park City’s Main Street during the Sundance Film Festival.(Valerie Macon / AFP/Getty Images)
Actor Thomas Middleditch walks along Main Street during the Sundance Film Festival.(Valerie Macon / AFP/Getty Images)
Actress Lorraine Toussaint on Park City’s Main Street during the Sundance Film Festival.(Valerie Macon / AFP/Getty Images)
Anderson Cooper on Park City’s Main Street during the Sundance Film Festival.(Valerie Macon / AFP/Getty Images)
Actor Matt Damon takes part in a panel discussion on the global water crisis during the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.(Chris Pizzello / Invision/Associated Press)
Sting performs at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.(Arthur Mola / Invision/Associated Press)
Actresses Kate Beckinsale, left, and Chloe Sevigny at the premiere of “Love & Friendship.”(Danny Moloshok / Invision/Associated Press)
Actor Viggo Mortensen at the premiere of “Captain Fantastic.”(Danny Moloshok / Danny Moloshok/Invision/AP)
Singer John Legend, executive producer of “Southside With You,” poses at the premiere of the film.(Chris Pizzello / Invision/Associated Press)
“Southside With You” writer and director Richard Tanne, left, with cast members Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers at the film’s premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.(Chris Pizzello / Invision/Associated Press)
Matthew Gray Gubler poses through a cardboard frame at the “Trash Fire” premiere.(Chris Pizzello / Invision/Associated Press)
Actress Maude Apatow, right, and her father, Judd Apatow, at the premiere of “Other People” at the Sundance Film Festival.(Danny Moloshok / Invision/Associated Press)
Casey Affleck, left, and Jon Hamm attend An Artist at the Table, a cocktail and dinner program benefit, in Kamas, Utah.(Nicholas Hunt / Getty Images for Sundance Film Festival)
Singer-songwriter Nick Jonas attends An Artist at the Table in Kamas, Utah.(Nicholas Hunt / Getty Images for Sundance Film Festival)
Filmmaker Kevin Macdonald, left, musican Sting, artist Cai Guo-Qiang and actor Fisher Stevens attend the “Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang” premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.(Matt Winkelmeyer / Getty Images for Sundance Film Festival)
Producer Sam Bisbee, left, actress Maude Apatow, actor J.J. Totah, actress Madisen Beaty, actor Jesse Plemons, actress Molly Shannon, director Chris Kelly, actor Bradley Whitford, actor John Early, producer Naomi Scott and actor Adam Scott attend the “Other People” premiere.(Jason Merritt / Getty Images for Sundance Film Festival)
Snowy conditions on Park City’s Main Street.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Bill Hill, Sundance projection and inspection manager, wipes down film reels at the festival’s print traffic room.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Peter Mayhew shovels snow off the marquee of the Egyptian Theater on Old Main Street in Park City, Utah.(George Frey / European Pressphoto Agency)
Preparations are underway for the 2016 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, including on Old Main Street.(George Frey / European Pressphoto Agency)
Adrianne Jorge, left, prepares films in digital formats as Bill Hill, right, Sundance projection and inspection manager, works on a film reel at the print traffic room for the Sundance Film Festival.(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Moderator Sean Means; Robert Redford, president and founder of the Sundance Institute; executive director Keri Putnam; and director of Sundance Film Festival John Cooper(Valerie Macon / AFP/Getty Images)
Robert Redford, president and founder of the Sundance Institute, and Keri Putnam, executive director of the Sundance Institute, take part in the 2016 Sundance Film Festival opening day press conference.(Chris Pizzello / Invision / Associated Press)
Salt Lake Tribune film critic Sean Means, festival director John Cooper, Sundance Institute executive director Keri Putnam and actor and festival founder Robert Redford attend a press conference to open the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.(George Frey / EPA)
An Oscar Mayer Wienermobile passes a sign welcoming visitors during the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.(Danny Moloshok / Invision / Associated Press)
The group left West Hollywood for Austin, Texas, in 1992, and things started to fall apart. “Gradually, everyone was finding out things, sexual manipulations, controlling relationships, saying he was healing people when he wasn’t. It was like an office where everyone starts to talk about what the boss has been doing; all these details started coming out.”
People began leaving, and Allen did as well.
After all those years in the group, Allen was faced with the question of “what to do I do with my life?”
“It wasn’t like I was going to be a manicurist,” he said. “I was very unresolved, I wasn’t at peace. It was like I had PTSD.”
A trip to the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, where he saw movies like Ira Sachs’ “Keep the Lights On,” provided the answer. “It energized me. I saw a community of people who are artists, whose films were so honest, and I felt, ‘These are my people.’ I was so thankful to see someone take their own life and put it up on-screen.”
Allen had periodically edited down what he had shot, but when he decided to leave the group, he said he didn’t get out with all of his footage. “But at the time, I didn’t care,” he added. “I never thought I’d look at this again. I felt I had to move on.”
Once Allen sat down to begin making “Holy Hell,” he had some 35 hours of edited footage to work with as well as interviews with more than a dozen other disaffected ex-cult members.
“I never wanted to make a negative film where you wanted to take a shower. I felt I was the closest person to him, and I could tell a fair story,” Allen says of his motivation.
“People ask me, ‘Do you regret it?’ and I think that’s such an unfair question. Would you regret a marriage that failed though you have children? The experience was not all about him, it was about the community. I didn’t recognize that until I made the film.”
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