By Hans Pedersen, June 2016 Issue.
Holy Hell is a curious and insightful documentary that sheds light on the dangerous allure of cults. The film incorporates 30 years’ worth of video footage into the story, capturing the members’ sun-dappled gatherings in nature, along with their eventual disillusionment.
The documentary – executive produced by Jared Leto and directed by Will Allen, a gay man who belonged to the Southern California religious group – was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.
The movie documents how this effervescent, welcoming group of loving people morphed into a tightly controlled circle that left several victims of sexual abuse in its wake – all while demonstrating how people who belong to cults don’t typically think that they’re in one and providing an inside look at how the collective operated.
Allen, a gay man living in West Hollywood, was drawn into the gentle, happy group of folks known as Buddhafield back in 1985; two of his siblings even became part of the clan. At first, they weren’t even cutting themselves off from their loved ones – which is typically the “first sign” that someone is in a cult.
Allen soon became the on-hand cameraman for the group, capturing a vast library of footage over the years. As director of Holy Hell three decades later, he has done a skillful job of helping editors re-assemble the grainy VHS footage into a compelling story that suits a very different purpose than the one with which the video was originally shot.
At the center of the story is the group’s leader, Andreas, who seems like a cross between motivational speaker Tony Robbins and Ricardo Montalbán playing Mr. Roarke on “Fantasy Island.” And despite the group’s name, there doesn’t seem to be much talk of Buddha.
Andreas eschews consumerism and excess. He seems like a peculiar and positive person who appears to encourage his followers to express love for one another, God and the planet. He speaks with an esoteric accent and struts around like a peacock, bare-chested and tan. True to the era, Andreas and his religious flock favor spandex, headbands and sparkly workout clothes.
All these glorious archival flashbacks are interspersed with talking-head interviews from former members of the group who paint a picture of how loving and spiritually nourishing the experience was – at least in the 1980s.
In fact, for the first half hour of the movie you may wonder what all the fuss is about. But viewers soon see, through Buddhafield members’ recollections and moments captured by Allen’s footage, paranoia creeps into their lives by the 1990s. Eventually, members are encouraged to sever ties with others and, as the Cult Awareness Network targets the group, unsettling invitations and accusations develop.
Soon the movie reveals that Andreas’ ethics seem to manifest in shades of gray – he seems to be flawed, at best, or a charlatan, at worst. When members of the group finally begin confessing to one another what they’re asked to do, they wise up about their guru and the truth emerges. For many, including Allen, the betrayal is devastating.
By the film’s climax, a hidden camera maneuver is launched to capture Allen’s attempt to confront Andreas.
The scope of the director’s archive of footage is simply staggering: a crew of 18 editors helped stitch together this story. Cleverly, the director reveals Andreas’ true character slowly, as the movie unfurls, allowing viewers to feel lulled into the leader’s weird benevolence at first.
The truth is always more nuanced in reality than in narrative storytelling, so this documentary is not a one-sided takedown of New Age groups. Members do share varying opinions about the helpful aspects of the cult experience, in retrospect, strengthening the film’s credibility; however, most of them agree that the domineering leader was a destructive force in their lives.
Many of the more progressive, New Age-based groups are genuinely helpful, healing circles, particularly for members of the LGBTQ community. But this strange and captivating documentary serves as a powerful reminder of the warning signs of a cult.