Will Allen's documentary Holy Hell (2016) spans the 22 years that the director spent as a member of LA-based spiritual cult, the Buddhafield. The cult was and still is led by a charismatic South American ex-actor who is referred to as "The Teacher" and various other names throughout the film. A portrait of the cult's evolution, Holy Hell exposes the leader's exploitation and abuse of several members and sheds light on the lure of spiritual cults without passing judgment on those who initially joined or never left.
Before the Sundance documentary's theatrical release, I spoke to filmmaker and ex-cult member Will Allen about his experience as a longstanding member of the Buddhafield. We talked about the struggle to piece together what exactly happened in the cult, "The Teacher's" mastery of exploitation and manipulation, and the shocking archival footage that Allen did not plan on using for a documentary.
ScreenPrism: How did you get involved with the Buddhafield? What drew you in?
Will Allen: My older sister introduced me to it. She was like my surrogate mother when I was growing up. I just noticed how much she changed [after joining] and she started saying, “You’ve got to come to this meditation group.” I didn’t know much about meditation at the time. I had read Shirley MacLaine’s book Out on a Limb and that was it. I thought, “I want to do that.” I had a crisis happening in my life, and I remember my sister saying: “You don’t have to do it alone.” I was a very strong person and I never asked for help. [After I joined the group], I felt an immediate peace and connection. I felt like I was home. It was 30 people in a room meditating, which was nothing unusual, but it was just what I was looking for at the time.
"The Teacher," the leader of the Buddhafield cult, in Holy Hell (2016)
SP: I read an interview where you said the Buddhafield didn't feel like a cult at the beginning, but then it turned into one.
WA: Absolutely. For the first few years, we always would read things about cults and laugh because it sounded like us. We knew that we weren’t a cult; we thought we just looked like one. But the more that I got involved, the more that was asked of us. What happens in these situations is that members start getting exploited. They start doing things they would never do for the group, for The Teacher. They’re also being effectively isolated, since we didn’t have any friends or family left — it was just us. Outside pressure started coming in and igniting The Teacher’s own personal paranoia, and soon it was no longer about what we each needed, but what he needed. I think that’s when it started [to become a cult]. We didn’t notice it because he instilled in us the idea that we needed to protect him. He would call himself “the highest truth” and say that the dark was going to attack him. That’s what is happening now in Hawaii. [Current members] see this film as attacking the truth that he is, and they’re acting on his behalf to protect him because they really believe he is bringing something to them. We believed that too.
SP: Do you know whether current members have watched Holy Hell? In the film, you said that you weren’t allowed to watch any TV or movies.
WA: [The Teacher] actually likes to watch TV. He’s a bit of a hypocrite in that way. No one else could watch it and he would watch six hours a night. He was hooked on TV. When the email came out explaining all of the truth of what had happened [the abuse and exploitation of several members], he still had enough power to say, “Don’t read that. It will confuse you.” So now he’s saying, “Don’t go see the movie. It’s full of lies.” Politicians do that kind of stuff all of the time.
SP: I thought it was so interesting how The Teacher combined spirituality with creativity and acting, and also that all of the members were so good looking. It seems this group could only have come out of LA. Were there a lot of struggling actors and creative members?
WA: I came into the group in LA in the middle of the 80s. LA is full of people who are creative. I wouldn’t say all of us were creative, but we all wanted to be. I think [The Teacher had such a pull] because he was entertaining on so many levels. We’d have games, plays and acting classes. The creativity aspect became a way to keep everything fresh and new; we never got bored. If we didn’t have that, I think all of us would have said, “Okay, I’m done with this. There’s nothing going on here.” But things kept happening and getting bigger and bigger. We would have projects, retreats, and events six nights out of the week. We were entertained creatively. He kept our attention.
Will Allen, the filmmaker behind Holy Hell
SP: It’s amazing how much footage you have. Is this the most footage from one specific cult that anyone has made?
WA: I don’t know if this is true or not, but I heard from my supervising editor that this might be the longest documented film — not just by a cult — but [in general]. The footage spans 22 years and it covers my time in the group. I do believe that it is [the most cult footage].
SP: Why was the leader okay with you filming? What were you planning to do with the footage at that time?
WA: At the time when I started filming, I just wanted to capture what was around me. I had gone to film school so I was always documenting my life. I thought that this was original and amazing footage and I wanted to turn it into something that we could show each other, like a home movie. [The Teacher] had a problem with it at first. It took him a while to trust me, to let me do it. He always acted reluctant, but he was also very flattered. He wanted to be an actor and I was pointing the camera at him all the time.
SP: Did he ever watch the footage at the time?
WA: Let’s say we went on a retreat. I would film it and come back with hours and hours of footage and then I would make a 1.5 or 2-hour documentary-type film, and I would show it to our group at Christmas the following year. We would relive the experience and see how beautiful our lives were. I would only focus on the good stuff. My films were like propaganda. I was only photographing the good things, and when I would see something beautiful, I would try to capture that.
SP: What was it like returning to that material later on?
WA: That was really hard. If I never had to return to that footage, I think I would be healthier in a different way. It was difficult every day because it was so confusing to begin with, and then I had to go back and live through it all again. But the good thing about going back to the footage was that when I picked up the camera, I remembered what I was thinking at the time of looking through the lens. It was like a journal for me internally, so that was great in helping me remember the psyche that was underneath all that we were ignoring. I thought, “I was really unhappy there. I was suffering and I just ignored it.” That kind of stuff. I hated [The Teacher] by the fourth year, and I didn’t even acknowledge it.
SP: You did a great job of depicting the lure of being in the group. Is there anything you miss about the Buddhafield?
WA: I could look back and say that I miss aspects of it, but then I immediately think of the exploitation that was also happening every minute. I can’t look back and want the group to be back the way it was. Everyone gave themselves over to something that we thought was beautiful, but it became exploitative. I do miss the creativity and friends of great depth. I love that, but I don’t want that community again. Not like that. My sister has said that she missed being forced beyond herself. We were all kind of pushed and inspired to go further than we would ever go alone. She would say no one makes me sing when I don’t want to sing, or dance when I don’t want to dance. We all got out of ourselves with those experiences, so those were healthy moments. I told her, “If you really want to go into the woods and dance, you’ve been shown how, so go do it.” But she said it’s not the same. You feel a lot of support [in the group] and people encourage you, so you feel safe. When I got out of the group and everyone was alone, we realized how rare it was to have that.
SP: What was it like speaking with The Teacher after having left the group? Do you know anything about the current group? You had mentioned that they moved to Hawaii.
WA: [Holy Hell] is about my 22 years, so that’s what I can speak about and illustrate. What’s happening now is harder to talk about because it’s not my personal experience. A lot of people who went with him to Hawaii were guided to not listen to the stories and not to believe people [about the sexual abuse of several members]. They would listen to him and no one else, and that’s why they remain. I don’t blame them, but I think some moral integrity should have kicked in. As soon as there’s reasonable doubt, which The Teacher always put in their heads, people believe that if you couldn’t catch him doing it, [he didn’t do it].
[The group broke up] in 2006, and I went back five years later to see what he was up to. I heard that he started a new group and that he was getting big again, and I couldn’t believe it. I went over [to Hawaii] and started filming a little bit undercover. The last shot in the film is of me encountering him. I wasn’t going there to confront him because that wouldn’t serve anything. He could talk his way in and out of any situation. I tried confronting him every day about things for 15 of my 22 years and it never went anywhere. I didn’t think there would be a resolution with me hitting him or saying, “Fuck you.” But [in the film], I let all of our voices speak.
SP: Has he tried to confront you about the documentary?
WA: One of my cast members who lives [in Hawaii] has been in constant conflict with the group because he speaks freely about them. After 28 years, you’d think he’d be able to speak freely about his experience, but they don’t want him talking about it and they hate him. [He and his wife] received an in-person death threat, and it turns out it was from The Teacher’s bodyguard. We don’t know if he told him to go do it or what. We talked about what we should do, and he went to the police and reported it. [Hawaiian officials] are taking this stuff very seriously now. They have a few spiritual groups there that have a lot of bad press for causing harm and chaos. [The police] went and found the guy, and he was served. I think The Teacher is kind of trapped on the island right now, so I’m sure he’s feeling pressure. We had a screening at Sundance and I thought some members might be in the theater. I said, “If you’re here, stand up. Defend yourself if you feel attacked. If you feel misunderstood, help us understand.” But no one wants to do that.
"The Teacher" in Holy Hell
SP: What was it like showing the film at Sundance? I’m also curious as to how Jared Leto got involved as Executive Producer.
WA: Jared saw an early cut maybe 3 or 4 months before Sundance, when the film was in its rough stages. Apparently he liked it enough to want to get involved and help see it through. That was fantastic and very encouraging. Who doesn’t love Jared Leto? His taste and his artistry, he’s so talented. So that was great, but we didn’t announce it right away because we didn’t want to make it a big deal. It came out after Sundance, which helped us get recognition.
Sundance was a great experience. Everyone who goes to Sundance is exhausted by the time they get there. You don’t get sleep for the whole week. So many members where there to support the film, and they were all having these healing experiences. They saw and heard things that they had lived through, but didn’t know all of the details about. I didn’t even know all of the details until I did interviews [for the film]. It was healing for them and we also had a lot of people in the audience who were just grateful for the film. I’m sure it doesn’t resonate with everybody, but for a lot of people it would touch parts of their lives — if they experienced abuse or were in a bad relationship, or had things like this happen to them. We had standing ovations. I think [the audience] wanted to acknowledge the courage of ex-members who talked about stuff that no one wants to talk about.
SP: It seems as though every member was exploited in a different way and unaware of each other’s suffering. What was it was like for ex-members to see what had happened to each other onscreen?
WA: Some [ex-members] ended up staying at Sundance for 6 days because they wanted to keep seeing the film over and over again. They were getting so much out of it. I think it helped them process and put pieces of the puzzle together. [After leaving a cult], that’s what you’re left with: a big puzzle that doesn’t go together. It’s really frustrating because you’re trying to figure things out, but nothing makes sense. When you start giving everyone more pieces to the puzzle, they understand better and can process the information and close that door once they have definitive answers. No one knew if [The Teacher] was good or bad; no one knew if he was a liar or sincere; no one know if his intentions were evil or human. We just didn’t know what to believe.
"The Teacher" in Holy Hell
SP: It’s interesting how you were all so connected in one way and so isolated in another way. What was that realization like?
WA: It's interesting because [being in the cult] keeps your innocence intact and keeps you very simple. We weren’t dealing with the complex issues that a lot of people in the world were dealing with. We were very insulated and secure with ourselves. I talked to some people who are in Hawaii with him now, and they sounded like me 10 or 15 years ago. They were saying stuff like, “We just want to love and give love. We don’t know why you’re doing this and attacking us.” And I wanted to say that I’m not attacking them. But you can’t scratch that paint because underneath it is a big mess. They have maintained this really simple, lovely way of seeing the world. They just want to help others, but they don’t see the harm that is happening underneath. It stays very shallow.
SP: Do you think that's often the case, that people join because they have hard lives and want everything to be easier and simpler?
WA: Yeah. We didn’t realize it, but [The Teacher] kept directing us into a simpler life. He would say things like, “Don’t get a car with expensive insurance” and “Get lower rent,” so we wouldn’t live in survival mode. Money was off the plate in a way. Everyone has goals and desires and things they want to obtain — but we didn’t really have that. We weren’t Amish, but our goals and ambitions were chopped down. I gave up my career inadvertently. I thought I didn’t have to be successful. But I think that people reintegrating and starting their lives over, that's not a unique problem...That’s why people in the audience can relate. It’s a big identity crisis, which we all suffer from at times in our lives when we make big changes. When you realize you’ve given a lot of yourself to something and you don’t know how to get it back.
Elizabeth Olsen in Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)
WA: I think The Master was accurate as far as [its depiction of] this egomaniac coming into his power and people giving it to him. That was really well done. Martha Marcy May Marlene, I loved that one. It was so quiet it left you with emotional resonance and confusion. [The main character] was paranoid and didn’t know if she was being followed. Her perceptions were twisted and she couldn’t relate to normal people anymore. That’s very accurate. She was trying to get out and to reintegrate into her sister’s world, and she couldn’t relate because she had been twisted in different ways. I haven’t seen The Path. Sometimes when I see movies about really extreme cults that are right wing religious or have very extremist ideas, I think they pretty much hang themselves when they talk about them. I don’t have compassion for people who are very strong in their religion.
SP: I also loved Martha Marcy May Marlene, so it’s good to know that it was pretty accurate.
WA: It was. They kill someone in that movie and that never happened with us, although [The Teacher] talks about it now. But that scene when they’re having to learn how to kill a squirrel and [the leader] is telling them that this isn't real — that stuff does make an impact on you and you see life differently afterwards.
SP: What’s next for you? Are you working on another film?
WA: I’m working on a couple of scripts that I really love. I’m open to working more on documentary, and I’m open to expanding the story into a television series, which would be really unique. I kind of see it as Six Feet Under (2001 - 2005) meets Big Love (2006 - 2011). Six Feet Under used to jump into different realms and realities. I love that because it makes a show very layered. I also love sci-fi and think it’s a great [genre]. You have to create an entire universe and you can use it to talk about anything. In that arena, we can learn and identify things about ourselves that we might not otherwise see.