“Holy Hell”: a documentary filmmaker journals 22 years in the Buddhafield Cult

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Name: Holy Hell
Director, writer:  Will Allen
Released:  2016
Format:  16:9
When and how viewed:  CNN, 2016/9/1
Length 103
Rating PG-13
Companies: Whitewater, FilmRise, Magnolia, CNN Films
Link: official


Holy Hell”, an autobiographical film by Will Allen, relates the documentarian’s experiences as a member of the Buddhafield Cult in California, and later Austin Texas, for over 22 years.

Allen had been forced to leave home in 1985 at age 22 when his parents learned he was gay. He soon found the group in West Hollywood, which had set up a quasi-intentional community around the mysterious and handsome Marcel, whom we later learn had worked as a porn star.  People tended to live at home at first and gradually donate all their income to the group, and only gradually “move in” or go on its many outdoor retreats, especially in the Mammoth Lakes area.

But Marcel claimed to be able to dispense “The Knowing” (the name of a 2009 sci-fi film) through meditation and lots of personal group intimacy, especially in water.  Some members reported supernatural (maybe extraterrestrial) visions or “remote viewings” (something the Monroe Institute in Virginia develops) without needing drugs.  Members would become dedicated to him through “upward affiliation” and often rather self-sacrificial and obedient;  one artists made artwork (like the Last Supper) out of fruits, only to be destroyed when eaten. Over time, Marcel’s relations with some members, including Allen, would become sexual  (both straight and gay) and sometimes abusive.  But Marcel refused to let people have children and women even had abortions.  Marcel might be construed as having narcissistic personality disorder (like Donald Trump) as he could not stand criticism.  He also became a caricature of what Rosenfels called the “masculine personality”

The film shows many of the characters aging over the 20 years.  The earlier film clips are shot on 8 mm and are usually in 4:3 aspect.  Marcel was quite striking in his 20s.  In time, he became obsessed with body appearances, as he and other members waxed their chests and underwent other procedures (which reminds me of how Reid Ewing characterized some facial procedures he had when he experienced “dysmorphia”, as he announced to the press in November of 2015).

The group somewhat fought off outside influences, like the Cult Awareness Network (which would later investigate Scientology and get sued).

Will Allen, who had started making home movies at 13, shows parts of two short films he made in the group, “Morning Glory’s Dance” (1989. Black and white) and “Midway Station” (2005), where he has a confrontation with Marcel in the desert over “knowing”.

Eventually, most members, including Allen, left, but Marcel re-emerged with his cult in Hawaii.

(Posted: Thursday, Sept 1, 2016 at 11:45 PM EDT)