REVIEW: Holy Hell [2016]

Score: 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

Rating: NR | Runtime: 100 minutes | Release Date: May 27th, 2016 (USA)
Studio: FilmRise
Director(s): Will Allen

“Maybe it’s worth it”

Every story containing religious or spiritual content inherently brings with it supporters and detractors beholden to personal agendas either from experience or unwavering positions of faith. It’s difficult subject matter to truly expose objectively because religion and spirituality are by definition subjective when compared against an infinite number of other similar institutions preaching their own “one true” notion of identical drives for peace, clarity, and happiness. People want to believe there’s an answer—a fix to solve their problems with love the universal healer and protector. We willingly give ourselves to God, Allah, Yahweh, L. Ron Hubbard, Jim Jones, David Koresh, Charles Manson or whoever else offers freedom from pain and suffering and as such none exist without us. We make them real. We give them power.

The easiest thing anyone can do is talk about this reality from an outsider’s perspective. Anyone can label one side predator and the other prey. Anyone can victim-blame “followers” as naïve and deserving for not seeing through the façade of their “teacher”, but life isn’t nor ever will be that easy. Buzzwords like brainwashing and de-programming aren’t bandied about in stories depicting cults without reason. The horrors of a cult are real because its members have given their leader the power to do whatever he/she desires. What people quickly dismiss as “naiveté” is the aftereffect of conditioning. They brainwash themselves due to their trust in their leader. They’ve found the thing that gives their life purpose and meaning and they’ll do anything (or ignore anything) to keep it.

Most accounts by documentarians of these types of stories feel clinical because those predisposed to despise the establishment and those predisposed to blame the victims simply hear what they want to hear. Either the film corroborates their outlook or it’s a crock of shit. This is why Will Allen‘s inside look at The Buddhafield led by Michel Rostand is such a vital piece of cinema. He was not only a part of this cult, but also one of the most trusted members of Michel’s inner circle. He was group videographer and in turn helped create the propaganda that recruited newcomers into the fold. This means he possesses over twenty years of footage that can explain what happened. Why did so many follow Michel and why did they stop?

You can dismiss Holy Hell as a vindictive piece of journalistic slander on a man who was never brought to justice and therefore must not have committed the abuses he is accused of performing, but that means you’d have missed the point. The cold hard truth is that it could prove difficult for a jury to convict Michel for his crimes because he didn’t coerce anyone into his “community”. They were present by their own free will and they’re the first to admit this fact. The film’s therefore less an exposé for the police to find Michel in Hawaii and arrest him than it is a battle cry targeted at others with co-dependent natures to not fall prey to the charismatic whims of a madman like they did.

By splicing new interviews with over ten former members against archival video of their twenty-plus year odyssey Allen is able to contextualize their myriad emotions. For the first half of the story these men and women are reminiscing with fondness and love. They joined together because they craved community. They loved one another as brothers and sisters and had Michel to thank. He was the lightning rod who spoke to them as a mentor, father, and friend. He helped them achieve purity—to speak to God as it were. They felt that presence, believed the power it conjured, and craved more. The most tragic aspect of all isn’t the dishearteningly obvious reveal of what was actually going on, but the realization that so much good happened despite it.

These characters go in-depth about how they gravitated towards Michel and what life in the group entailed. By all accounts it was a somewhat normal spiritual existence with jobs, responsibilities, and charity work. The latter made them feel good about themselves, they lived together in homes to share that good will, and each idolized their master for allowing them to partake. We’re talking about lost souls who didn’t have direction that ultimately found one in The Buddhafield. They became better people, stronger people (inside and out), and completely indebted to someone none really knew. That reveal—Michel’s identity—is itself a fascinating origin story to witness, but not as captivating as the gradual progression from commune of equality to absolute dictatorship.

And you cannot deny the validity of their epiphany either. The tears shed come from personal disappointment—a sense of guilt they may never fully shake. Michel is a monster to them now with good reason (I mean this psychologically, but those covert distance shots of him after so much plastic surgery will give you nightmares). There’s determination in their faces when they recount what he did; the breakdowns occur when remembering how they helped him do it as well as the recognition that they might be better people having been members. What a punch to the gut. We know what they mean because the horror is unimaginable and yet they found peace before the chaos. What they shared with each other beyond Michel was profound and necessary.

So despite the man at the pyramid’s apex being evil, the experience wasn’t. That’s a fine line to toe, impossible for anyone who didn’t endure those good times and bad. Allen isn’t afraid to let his friends speak about both because both have their place in Buddhafield’s history. On paper it was a cult led by a failed actor who—as one ex-member describes it—fell into the role of a lifetime. Without complexity it’s about a hypnotherapist who exploited his patients, an egomaniacal narcissist who meticulously controlled the environment around him to his own benefit. But in reality Holy Hell is a story about faith in an ideology despite its institution. It’s about learning how happiness doesn’t come at a price. It comes from within.

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