Although the documentary Holy Hell is director Will Allen’s first “feature” effort, the filmmaker had been making films for decades that only a handful of people would ever see. Shortly after graduating from Southern Methodist University in Texas, Allen – who had been tinkering with film ever since he was a teenager – was coaxed by his older sister into joining her at a communal retreat of sorts. Allen wouldn’t come back for 22 years.

Holy Hell, which opens Friday, May 20, 2016 at The Bloor Hot Docs Cinema following a successful world premiere at Sundance earlier this year and screening at Hot Docs just a few weeks ago, documents Allen’s lengthy time spent within The Buddahfield. For lack of better terminology, The Buddahfield – which migrated from Los Angeles to Austin to Hawaii during Allen’s time there – was a cult. It was led by an enigmatic leader named Michel (who would later change names), who claimed to have intimate understanding of “The Knowing,” an ultimate step towards one-ness with God; something that would be revealed only to certain members whenever the “guru” felt the time was right.

Allen worked within The Buddhafield not only as a close aide to the cult’s leader, but also as their de facto, in-house documentarian and videographer. This isn’t a documentary made up of hidden camera footage. Everything contained within the film was footage he had been encouraged to shoot in the first place. It’s a deeply personal work that Allen spent most of his adult life inadvertently working on since 1985. He would shoot music videos, ballets, and various pieces of propaganda and recruitment tools within the organization. To say that Allen lived close to his subjects and viewed their society from within is the ultimate understatement, and something the filmmaker admits wasn’t easy to do.

“These are like my home movies and my early days as a filmmaker,” Allen explains during a sit down at Victoria College in Toronto over coffee on the afternoon of the film’s first screening at Hot Docs. “I remember every movie I ever shot. I really know these images, so they connect to me like a journal would. I remember what I was thinking at the time. I remember what was happening to me. Revisiting a lot of that was hard. I was really trying to wake up to the underlying badness and try to understand what I think about all of this now, and to bring that all to the surface and deal with that. The damage happens in the psyche, and the psyche is there the whole time, and there are different levels of emotions being hurt. And having to look at [Michel] over and over again was really hard. I’m trying to put that emotion into the film and on the screen. I had to feel the truth, and whether it’s true to other people doesn’t matter as much to me. I am trying to be honest, and that hurts sometimes. It’s so hard to generalize this shit. Even now in interviews, I get wary because a lot of what I feel compelled to talk about is the stuff I wanted to cut. Thankfully, I worked with a lot of great people who knew the connection I had with these images and that there was no way I could be fully objective about some of these things anymore. They meant different and multiple things to me, and I couldn’t always see what they meant to other people.”

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To get to the heart of what The Buddhafield meant to its former members and the filmmakers’ close friends who shared the experience, Allen knew he would have to approach his deeply personal tale from all sides. It was a consideration that Allen didn’t take lightly. When the film was announced as part of the line-up at Sundance back in December, Allen was initially credited as an anonymous filmmaker so he could finish gathering and editing interviews and stories with his friends in a considerate, compassionate manner, free of potential outside hampering from a group that’s still in operation to this day. Through the process of these interviews, Allen was able to line-up the personal stories of fellow members with the footage he captured and his own personal memories. But part of the challenge of pulling together two decades worth of deeply personal material was to find a sense of balance.

“Most of my friends who were willing to talk, were willing to talk right away,” Allen says about the subjects brave and strong enough to share their own scarred experiences, and admittedly a few joyous moments, as well. “They love me and trust me to let them see what I come up with. I wanted this to be a film about cults. I wanted thirty people chiming in. I didn’t care if you guys got to know us because I wanted you to hear everything we had to say. But as I worked, I realized only a few people could tell the story and that I had to pick characters, which does somewhat limit it, but that’s also what makes it palpable for the audience. I knew all these people, so I didn’t need the back-story, but the audience does a little bit. It’s hard to boil down twenty years and so many experiences into two hours. These are people talking about scars that still exist. It’s still very fresh for a lot of us. I’m so grateful to my friends who were able to tap into the memories and convey the story as if it was happening to them in the here and now. The biggest question people want to know is ‘Why were you there so long?’ The only way to answer that is to let the audience know what we were holding onto and what we were thinking. There were some things that I knew, but I knew I never knew the whole picture, and there was so much I learned from these interviews. My character and my life’s truth is the main storyline, but it’s hard to only talk about yourself and your own experience in a film like this, and it’s doubly hard for me because I lived with [Michel] for eighteen years. No one else in the film did. All of their stories about what they went through, I could relate to, but they couldn’t necessarily relate to mine. They weren’t with him, in his house, for that long. I couldn’t talk about their story, and they couldn’t talk about mine. It was about putting that together. The details weren’t as important when we got down to it because it all speaks to the same experience.”

Looking back now with a fresh pair of eyes on his time spent within the cult, Allen also realized the difference between trying to discover one’s confidence and blatant narcissism. At the time of his joining The Buddhafield, Allen thought he was figuring out his own path in life, but he was really bearing witness to how alleged self-help gurus are able to manipulate others to satisfy the egotistical drive of the leader behind the wheel.

“I wanted the film to be that kind of universal story about a social and human condition. We all follow people – religious leaders, CEOs, politicians, celebrities, community leaders – and I think it’s obvious that not all of them have our best interests in mind all the time.”

“I didn’t go there because I wanted to help others, or at least that wasn’t my intention,” Allen says candidly. “I went because I thought it was going to help my personal experience. In a weird way, that’s so self-involved that it feeds this narcissistic condition that we were surrounded by without knowing it. It was always about us and healing ourselves first. I mean, you should help yourself first before you’re capable of helping others, but the way we practiced that was really egocentric in a lot of ways. We were all focused on ourselves, and we had blinders on. Before I was out of this group, I don’t think I really knew what a narcissist truly was. I thought it was all about vanity. There’s a healthy narcissism or confidence that we all have to have because we are the centre of our own world, and it’s what helps us set boundaries against negative aspects of our lives. That’s not selfish, but that’s how you guide your universe. Then there’s the form of narcissism you see in the film, which is very, very different from what’s healthy. When your leader or guru – who actually isn’t a guru, but actually a sociopathic liar – starts something like this, they aren’t going to bring what’s best for everyone to this new concept they created. They are going to bring what works for them. People like to be admired, and I even had an actor friend of mine who saw a 45-minute cut of the film early in production ask, ‘How do I get people to admire me like that?’ And I said ‘First, that’s the absolute wrong thing to say, and second, you have Twitter, don’t you?’”

Allen also admits that he’s had a hard time explaining his film and experiences to others, mostly because The Buddhafield – which initially espoused themes of peace, love, and harmonious co-existence with the universe – doesn’t fit the standard, salacious media definition of what a cult is defined by many as being.

“Not everything that becomes a cult starts off as something someone could readily identify as a cult,” Allen says about some people’s apprehension to use “the c-word” when talking about The Buddhafield. “In America, even when I try to tell my smartest friends what happened to me, they immediately think of Jim Jones, David Koresh, and Heaven’s Gate when they think of cults. That’s all they really know. That’s the sensationalized world of cults because things went terribly bad in those instances and people know about it. Things went terribly bad within The Buddhafield, too. But something like The Buddahfield would be seen in books today as something to be labeled ‘a new, emerging religion,’ because these kinds of things are so hard to talk about. Cult is such a throwaway word these days, and to some extent so is religion, which is why people might be hesitant to simplify Buddhafield and call it a cult. A cult by definition isolates a person from society and forces someone to listen to only one point of view. All the elements were here to create a cult, but at the time we didn’t know it. What I wanted to do was open up the conversation.”

The opening up of that conversation also speaks to some larger, more universally identifiable truths about how people can unwittingly allow themselves to be subconsciously manipulated on a regular basis that Allen wanted to lay bare beyond his own personal experiences.

“I wanted the film to be that kind of universal story about a social and human condition. We all follow people – religious leaders, CEOs, politicians, celebrities, community leaders – and I think it’s obvious that not all of them have our best interests in mind all the time. It’s that frustration that lots of people have, but no one really has a solution for because the masses don’t really care on some level. And a lot of that is because when you get to the bottom of that pyramid, a lot of the time the people down there are getting their needs met, or their needs are less, and as such, they don’t get too involved. Only the ones who aren’t getting that are the ones who feel frustrated, and more people need to get involved in their lives in those kinds of ways. I think [in The Buddahfield] people were having mostly satisfactory social and spiritual interactions with each other. Their needs for relationships and community were being met, which made the subversive, psychological damage able to happen, and that’s what no one was talking about.”

“In this society that we were inadvertently creating, we were being submissive. It was rooted in this tradition where you take your shoes off when you walk in the door, and you don’t come in with a big ego, you don’t assert what you already know, you don’t fight, and you listen and surrender. These are things that are dangerous concepts to most people, but in this setting, these were the only ways to attain that spiritual goal. In this particular loosey-goosey organization and system we had set up, there was no checks and balances or a piece of paper that said what we had to do. Transparency would be the obvious answer for something like this, but no one wants that because it takes the mystery out of it and that ruins the whole thing. With my teacher, as it grew and it became more successful and things were working on their own naturally, then he felt the need to control, manipulate, lie, and deceive to maintain that. These are things I believe he thought were necessary to keeping the organization contained. To keep this society working he had to do this, because amongst ourselves, there would most likely be chaos. Without that control, democracy would rise, there would be no need for a teacher, and we could just grab the book and read all about what’s going on for ourselves.”