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Former Cult Member Shares a Cautionary Tale in ‘Holy Hell’

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Jeremy Kinser

When director Will Allen’s name was omitted from the Sundance Film Festival Competition announcement last November, plenty of conjecture surrounded his film Holy Hell and its sensitive subject matter. The riveting documentary sheds light on the inner workings of a mysterious spiritual community called Buddhafield, in which more than 100 young people lived a utopian existence under the grip of an enigmatic leader.

The non-fiction film is the first feature from director Will Allen, and while numerous other documentaries and narrative films have explored similar subject matter, Holy Hell offers a unique perspective. Allen was himself a member for more than two decades, having joined the group shortly after completing film school and was enlisted as the group’s official videographer. He recorded activities that usually centered on their leader they called The Teacher, or Michel. A Speedo-clad South American man who’d been a dancer and a background actor in films such as Rosemary’s Baby, Michel offered to show his followers the enlightenment his master had shown him.

Allen became so immersed in the cult that he recruited his two sisters, much to the consternation of their mother. His narrative speeds through the years, showing himself and other members living with a happiness that was elusive in the outside world. Eventually, members began to leave after questions of their teacher’s practices arose and dark secrets emerged, including his past work as a performer in gay porn and — most disturbingly — that he’d sexually abused many of his impressionable male followers.

When the film was announced as a Sundance premiere, most of the attention focused on the decision to keep Allen’s name anonymous until early January. After one of the film’s screenings at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the soft-spoken Allen shared that this allowed him to complete work on the doc due to concern of interference by Michel and the people who still follow him. Allen revealed that he didn’t feel safe or comfortable while working on the film. He joked that there might even be current members in the audience. “If you’re here, stand up!” he insisted.

Asked if he felt an obligation to try to rescue others still under the spell of Michel (now based in Hawaii and still attracting new acolytes), Allen said that’s what he hopes to accomplish with his movie.

Rhadia Gleiss, one of several former Buddha Tribe members who attended the screening, added, “This film will be far more terrifying and damaging to him than any possible legal action that could ever happen. As much as he lies and constructs stories and manipulates people, there is no undoing this. It’s him speaking [on camera] so he can’t get away from it.”

Holy Hell opens in theaters in Los Angeles Friday, May 27. Click here for tickets and information.

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