Movies

in focus

What it’s like to be in a cult

A scene from Will Allen’s “Holy Hell.”
WRA Productions
A scene from Will Allen’s “Holy Hell.”

Near the end of Roman Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968), during a party attended by festive devil worshipers, a dark-haired man looks directly into the camera. The image lasts a split second, but it is as if the man is looking at you. Into your soul. It is chilling.

The actor is Jaime Gomez, who would emerge a couple of decades later, in the 1980s, as Michel, The Teacher, head of the spiritual enclave Buddhafield. Scores of beautiful people followed The Teacher, whose charisma and hodgepodge of Eastern and New Age philosophy beguiled them.

One of them was Will Allen, a film school grad trying to find meaning in life. Like the others, he fell in love with Michel and became dependent on the community. During that time he served as the unofficial videographer. He would leave 22 years later, in 2007; and in 2012 he sorted through his footage and interviewed other ex-members to make a documentary about the experience, “Holy Hell.”

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Allen discussed the film on the phone earlier this month from Santa Monica, Calif.

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Q. What made you decide to make the movie?

A. I had gone to Sundance in 2012 and I saw movies that were so raw and real and honest that it changed me as an audience member. I was getting an experience I would never have gotten if someone hadn’t made that movie. I thought, “I should make my own movie and take back control of life by making a film.”

Q. Did you have an audience in my mind?

A. I hope the movie sheds a light on all types of abusive relationships. The human part of the story is that we were all just normal people and we were betrayed. I think most people can relate to that. They also might see how to gain their power back.

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Q. At first it seems like Michel might be almost the real deal. But then halfway through the film you drop a revelation. Why did you structure the film this way?

A. Because that’s the way it happened to us in real life. To share the experience, I thought the best way was to show how it happened to us. At the beginning we’re very forgiving and accepting. We didn’t know about the abuse; it didn’t register as abuse at the time — for some of us, anyhow. We accepted the abuse as if it was a spiritual lesson. That all comes clear in the reveal to the audience. If you tell the story otherwise it would be hindsight. We’d be talking about some subject instead of experiencing it.

Q. You show a shot of Michel as a satanist in “Rosemary’s Baby.” Do you think he was evil?

A. I never thought of him as evil. That’s a hard word to wrap my head around because it means the Devil exists. But I think he’s a narcissist and an opportunist. He opened himself up to darkness and it brought out all his worst characteristics.

“Holy Hell” premieres on CNN on Sept. 1, airing at 9 p.m. and 11 p.m. www.cnn.com/shows/cnn-films

Interview was condensed and edited. Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.