Sundance 2016: ‘Holy Hell’ is a Fascinating, Powerful First-Hand Account of the Rise and Deterioration of a Cult

What makes a faith hold together, and is it the same thing that causes it to fall apart? When people get torn apart, can there still have been some good to have come out of it? Filmmaker Will Allen spent 22 years in a small cult called The Buddhafield, and the film documents his time there, but these are the sorts of questions Holy Hell really seeks to answer through the sifting of archival footage and interviews of those who had also left.

When Will comes to the group in 1985, it’s a pretty healthy experience. People are searching inwards for inner peace, and forming a strong family bond within the group together. They love to help each other out, and would do anything to be there for each other. Will becomes the sort of official videographer/filmmaker for the group, giving us unparalleled access and first-hand account of what it was like to be a part of this group all these years through untold amounts of archived footage.

There’s a bizarre quality in many aspects of The Buddhafield. Everybody in this cult looks like they belong in an 80s dance workout video, tossing out the white robes for speedos, bikinis and workout clothes. Their leader Michel is an enigmatic figure. He dances and he does hypnotherapy, and has a foreign accent that’s hard to pin down. At one point he makes a gonzo music video called “Femme Fatale,” and appears as an exalted version of himself in films that Will makes for the group. Eventually, he has The Buddhafield build him a dance theater just so he can have them rehearse ballets that he stars in and performs just for themselves.

In the 90s, things begin to tense up. The Cult Awareness Group becomes, well, aware if you will, of The Buddhafield, driving Michel to flee their West Hollywood location to Austin, Texas as he changes his name to Andreas. To keep things together, we’ll refer to him as Andreas throughout this review. It’s here that Holy Hell begins to examine how Andreas tightens his grip around his followers, cutting themselves off from the world and from themselves. Previous teachings of self-enlightenment morph and are perverted into unending pampering and slavish devotion all for the self-benefit of Andreas. As time goes on, the horrifying truth about Andreas comes forth to the group that causes an implosion in The Buddhafield to occur. To recount it here would be a disservice to the experience of watching the film, but let’s just say it makes Will and those who have volunteered their interviews all the more inspiring and powerful for coming forward with their stories.

Going back to the questions asked at the beginning here, the striking thing about Holy Hell is that there was positivity that came out of The Buddhafield for those that left. Out of all this pain and suffering came an unbreakable bond of love between those who broke free from Andreas. They discovered that everything that was originally great about the group – the familial bond, the sense of belonging, the self-enlightenment – never actually came from Andreas, but from within themselves and each other. For that, Holy Hell is a powerful, personal first-hand look at both the negative and surprising positives of such a traumatizing experience. Rather than hell, the film points to hope.

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