A gaggle of West Hollywood residents fall prey to what sociologist Max Weber would call “charismatic authority” in Holy Hell, Will Allen’s documentary about the Buddhafield, a commune of men and women living under the guidance of an individual they call The Teacher, or Michel. Allen himself was one of the original members in the 1980s and, having just graduated from film school, recorded much of the group’s activities over a two-decade span. That footage comprises some intriguing evidence for this otherwise moribund doc, which dutifully traces how its members, who appear as talking heads throughout, became steadily shocked to realize that their supposedly compassionate leader was actually a manipulative, narcissistic rapist.
Allen’s pacing and narrative emphasis are askew from the opening sequence, where no less than a dozen former members are introduced through contemporary interviews, with their first names accompanying a quick statement about their involvement in Buddhafield. Dumping the film’s subjects at the start works against individuating each’s motivation for participating in the commune. It’s also a lazy choice for how it telegraphs the doc’s obvious trajectory from the group’s state of grace to abject disarray.
The Buddhafield operated on deifying terms for Michel, who told his followers that he possessed “the knowing,” and that those chosen to receive it would be granted direct exposure to God. Allen establishes these points with clips of Michel proselytizing in front of his congregation, which are intercut with various statements from members like Emiliana, who expresses frustration that she was continually denied “the knowing” despite many years of unwavering devotion. Furthermore, former members acknowledge Michel’s magnetism instead of his ideas as being responsible for their participation in the Buddhafield, implicitly confirming an irrational response in the face of promised guidance toward enlightenment. As Allen says at the opening of the film: “I always wanted to know: Why am I here?” For these devotees, Michel offered an alternative to denominational religion by deeming himself capable of offering actual, rather than manufactured, transcendence.
It hopes to jolt audiences with OMGs instead of edifying them about the empty lure of Buddhafield’s cult mentality.
At least these are the unsatisfactory conclusions that Holy Hell invests in by chalking up Michel’s sham to the ails of narcissism, with the figurehead bearing the entirety of the film’s critique. As members keep reiterating their betrayal and unwavering adamancy that “we trusted him,” Allen never turns his camera inward to ask why those involved were willing to give themselves over to a person so obviously hell-bent on self-gratification.
Revelations of Michel’s sexual misconduct with numerous members is hardly surprising, as devastating for those involved as it is, because it’s made clear from early footage that Michel is a psychologically disturbed charlatan using clinically obfuscating rhetoric. His promise of offering “the knowing” and providing “cleansings” through group rituals and other coded, ultimately meaningless exercises was certainly deceitful, yet Allen positions that deceit as a shocker, hoping to jolt audiences with OMGs instead of edifying them about the empty lure of Buddhafield’s cult mentality.
Without a two-pronged interrogation, both of cult of personality and victim-inducing groupthink, the documentary witlessly turns into a revenge piece in its final third, as Allen, now completely broken apart from the group, seeks to confront Michel on the streets of L.A. about his lies. Accordingly, Holy Hell features scenes of Allen spying through a car window rather than doubling back on itself to trace the seedlings of its subjects’ need for acceptance. Since Allen and other members stay in denial about their own culpability (“I wasted years of my life because of him!”), the doc invites a dangerous sort of victimhood where those who support and endorse an obvious fraud aren’t held accountable for their own naïveté.