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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Debuting Monday as part of Sundance’s U.S. Documentary Competition, “Holy Hell” is Allen’s first-person story of the 22 years he spent in a West Hollywood cult led by a charismatic “teacher” and promising enlightenment, an experience that started out euphoric and ended up divisive and sexually exploitative.
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.”
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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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