Holy Hell!, the documentary from Will Allen, explores Buddhafield, a small new age enlightenment community that started in Los Angeles. The group promised disciples a spiritual awakening but wound up being a personality cult for an out of work porn actor.
Buddha-field is Sanskrit for the celestial realm or pure abode of a Buddha or bodhisattva. Like all cults, Buddhafield began as a paradise. Everyone pitches in. They pay rent but also feed the community chest. They do service hours, helping handicapped members and the sick. The followers are all beautiful people: toned, thin and white, with toothy smiles and bright, innocent eyes. Today we might see them in an Old Navy commercial.
Director Will Allen was raised Catholic. He was an altar boy with a strong sense of spiritual curiosity. This was triggered when he saw his grandmother’s open casket when he was four. Allen started making movies with an 8 mm camera when he was a kid. He was obsessed with finding the deeper meanings of things and believed he could explore the various meanings of life through the lens of a camera. Allen’s mom kicked him out of the house when he came home from film school and told her he was gay. The psychological trauma of the separation deepened his spiritual quest and left him open to the suggestions of the most narcissistic of gurus.
A guru is a person who has a direct line to god. Spiritual searchers seek out these awakened teachers so they can get a taste of god consciousness because they feel blocked from the connection. A cult gives the power to the middle man. In the case of Buddhafield, the middle man was its charismatic leader Michel, a.k.a. Andreas, a.k.a. Jaime Gomez, who now goes by the name Rey Ji, which means “God King.”
Movies about cults are gaining ground in the public consciousness. Holy Smoke!, which starred Kate Winslet and The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2012 allegory on Scientology leader L. Ron Hubbard dramatized brainwashing. Sound of My Voice, the 2011 low-budget thriller directed by Zal Batmanglij that starred Brit Marling as the hypnotic spiritual leader from the future, took a pseudo-documentary approach as the filmmakers ultimately fell under her spell. Living Hell! doesn’t begin on the outside.
This isn’t just a journalistic documentary based on research and investigative reporting. Allen is an insider. He was sucked into the cult and became a very integral part of it. Allen’s filmmaking skills are put to use by the guru for promotional and other uses like his Morning Glory’s Dance, a short film Allen shot for the group in 1989. Allen spent about 25 years in a Buddhafield. He uses the video footage that was supposed to celebrate the prophet to expose his crimes. Allen cut his footage together with interviews with former members.
The movie was executive produced by Jared Leto, the actor who happens to sing in the band Thirty Seconds to Mars. But Holy Hell! is planted firmly on the earth, with the worshippers as nature loving tree-huggers, quite literally, as evidence in one forest scene. The film opens with the ooka chaka chant of Blue Swede’s remake of the song “Hooked On A Feeling,” while we see revelers in the throes of religious ecstasy. Buddhafield promised ascension, but their leader does not have command of the five elements necessary for godhead.
Andreas imparts shaktipat, which is immediate spiritual enlightenment, to his followers. He calls it “The Knowing.” The acolytes all want to know what’s going on with the knowing and he dishes it out in small portions. Those who are forced to wait get jealous of the pecking order. Jealousy is not a very spiritual emotion, but Andres plays with spiritual emotions like a spoiled child on Christmas morning. The director is one of the chosen. His sister, who joined the cult because of him, does not until much later in the process. Even between siblings there is a rivalry.
Followers who experienced “The Knowing” report hearing sounds. They see flashes of lights and hallucinogenic auras, as well as being able to discern the very atoms that surround them. After the director receives shakti he becomes the guru’s personal attendant, giving massages and working out the kinks in the former dancer’s body. After a while he wonders whether “too much was being asked of me and I was getting in too deep.”
The documentary begins to turn dark when a former member contacts Rick Ross’s Cult Awareness Network, which profiles cults and offers deprogramming. “We used to joke that even if it was a cult, at least it was a good cult,” a disciple explains.
The group escapes scrutiny in LA by moving to Austin, Texas. The guru gets more and more paranoid and it changes the dynamic. After the events at the compound on Waco, Texas, where David Koresh and his followers perished at the hands of federal cops, Andreas gets positively lizardy. He breaks his disciples up into pods. The pod people continue to recruit.
The members don’t notice Michel’s plastic surgery until the last quarter of the film when his eyelashes start falling out, though it’s been apparent to viewers from the beginning. Michel, who becomes Andreas halfway through the film, is an “out of work actor who stumbled on the role of a lifetime,” one acolyte observes. Michel had a small part in Roman Polanski’s satanic film classic Rosemary’s Baby. It is a very small part. He is onscreen for about eight seconds and doesn’t have any lines.
“He was an actor, and I assumed a very good one until I saw him acting,” says one of the cult members. Like many actors, he is a pathological narcissist and his need to be the center of attention ultimately takes precedence over any spiritual concerns. His best acting was in the adult films, where his Yoga and dance trained body gymnastically pleasures the senses.
The tough love of the master comes out in his dance classes. The guru loves the ballet. He sees it as a spiritual exercise. It becomes a daily ritual, which is heaven for some and a living hell for others, “like going back to school,” according to one cult member. The group puts on elaborate ballet productions, with full costumes and intricate lighting, which they work on for months only to perform once and only for the members of the troupe in Austin.
Allen amps up the tension in spurts, introducing the dangerous elements as incidental, only to pull back to what seems the safe, idyllic life of the compound. The audience feels the jeopardy that creeps into their spiritual life as an outside force that might threaten the pilgrims before they realize that it is the Mayflower itself that sprung the leak.
The disciples continue to follow even after many red flags are raised. Andreas wants members to detach from the family, to break the bond of family in order to bring them closer to him. He hypnotizes them regularly and I wonder whether “the Knowing” is a post-hypnotic suggestion.
You know the saying, ‘if I can’t dance you can keep your revolution’? Well, if your spirituality says we can’t get laid a lot of people are going to abandon it for the dancefloor. That energy is going to go somewhere. And it won’t be a good place. The guru sees sexual orgasm as a little death and believes the orgasm of meditation is enough.
There is no real catharsis in the film. The final confrontation is frustrating as the director is unable to muster the anger necessary to bring the false prophet down. After tracking the master to Hawaii, where he is once again amassing a following under a new name, the director asks whether Rey Ji is being a “good boy,” but the master doesn’t know what that means.
The frustration is real as we see that many members of Buddhafield never leave the group. This isn’t a big cult, like the Moonies or Scientologists. This is a typical cult, one like thousands that crop up across the country all the time. The filmmakers warn that every audience member has a cult in their town.