PARK CITY, Utah — “Holy Hell” is the title of Will Allen’s documentary about the 25 years he spent in a cult. If you add an exclamation point, it also effectively describes the reaction the film has drawn from audiences at the Sundance Film Festival. It’s not just that Allen is willing to spill the beans about the Buddhafield religious group and its creepy, charismatic leader Michel, a.k.a. Andreas, a.k.a. Jaime Gomez. It’s that Allen was basically the group’s A/V guy for 2½ decades and so has miles of video at his disposal — footage that was created to celebrate a guru and that now serves to expose his crimes.
The Buddhafield was never a big cult — 150 members at most — but it drew its West Coast adherents with a blissful mix of New Age mantras and potted love-is-all-around, sub-Zen sloganeering. The video footage shot by Allen in the early 1980s is full of youthful seekers, beautiful boys and girls who missed the Me Decade by that much and who were ecstatic to find a hip spiritual leader in tune with the mysteries of the universe. Michel’s eyes may look dead to us, but, as with all evangelical movements, you probably had to be there.
Allen was there, and so were the Buddhafield members who followed Michel from Los Angeles to Austin, Texas, in the 1990s, and who ultimately left more than a decade later, after revelations of the guru’s sexual abuses and mind control. The difference between the cult followers frolicking ecstatically in the early video footage and their rueful wised-up presence in recent interviews is what galvanizes this movie — it’s the difference between brainwashed true believers and older, wiser selves who can’t believe how much they believed.
“Holy Hell” gradually pulls the legs out from under Michel’s divinity — it turns out he was a wannabe star who had a bit part in “Rosemary’s Baby” and leading roles in 1970s gay stag films — and Allen’s archival material provides visual evidence to the guru’s physical and moral decay. Michel promoted “natural” living while undergoing regular plastic surgery procedures; he insisted his followers abstain from sex while forcing many of his young male acolytes into unwanted sexual relationships. The Buddhafield began as a way to find God; it quickly turned into a way to worship Michel.
Someone in “Holy Hell” points out that it takes two kinds of people to start a cult: co-dependents who need someone to worship, and a pathological narcissist who wants to be worshipped. The audience in the screening I attended sometimes laughed out loud at the naïve behavior on display in Allen’s footage. What was it that blinded Michel’s followers to the classic control tactics he used to isolate them from their families — to the point of forbidding Buddhafield members from visiting dying parents — and keep their loyalty for himself? Couldn’t they see what a freak he was?
No, because when you’re in it, you reorder your reality to support it, and the moment the spell breaks, it’s unfathomable how brainwashed you had become. After the Wednesday evening screening, Allen and 10 or so of his fellow former culties — including both his sisters — took the stage to answer questions from the audience, and while some queries were callous (“Do you realize how insane you look in those old videos?”), most were sympathetic and forgiving, as if almost everyone in the auditorium understood that with the right insecurities and the wrong kind of figurehead, anyone might follow a Michel off the cliff.
“Holy Hell” is still awaiting a distribution deal, and it deserves to get one. It’s moviemaking as slightly chagrined group therapy and as a warning to others drawn to charlatans — specifically the 100 or so acolytes, now living in Hawaii, who continue to cluster around the aging Michel.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.