In “The Blank Stare,” a two-part installment of Amy Sedaris’s classic TV series Strangers with Candy, Jerri Blank joins a cult. “I’m gonna sit at the welcome table,” she sings along with its members, holding flowers in the back of a van in one scene and squat-walking around like a chicken in another. “I’m gonna sit at the welcome table one of these days, Hallelujah!” The whole thing is ridiculous—I was stunned to learn that the song is real and has some interesting religious and social history. I guess I hoped Will Allen’s Holy Hell, a documentary of his days with the Buddhafield, a Los Angeles “spiritual group,” would dispel the kooky image a cult conjures up for many—i.e., me. Unfortunately, it doesn’t.
Juxtaposing old footage he took back in the day with current filmed interviews of former members, Allen puts together a vivid picture of what life in a cult is like. Some of it is silly—one member discusses making fruit arrangements—but most of it is at least mildly interesting. Allen’s focus is decidedly on the group’s mysterious leader, Michel, an uncomfortably odd and almost permanently shirtless guy from Latin America. Michel, who looks like he was plucked fresh from a Pierre et Gilles photo, resembles an early ‘90s gay porn star with his perfect tan, well-developed abs, Speedos, and sunglasses. He used hypnosis, “therapy,” and ballet as a means to spiritual enlightenment. Perhaps it’s not surprising that this man they all called “teacher” was nothing like he seemed—to the group’s members, at least.
WARNING: Potential spoilers ahead!
It took almost 20 years, but Michel became increasingly demanding, vain, psychologically abusive, and creepy as he got older. He insisted that members not have sex, and even went out of his way to sabotage budding relationships. He got women in the group to have abortions when they transgressed his “no sex” policy. He convinced members not only to pay for his plastic surgery but also undergo their own. This was all self-serving, we learn—big shock. Many but not all of his followers lost faith when an email sent to Buddhafield members revealed that Michel, who actually did some porn in the past, had been sexually using many of the group’s young men—the ones he selected to personally “serve” him—for years.
It’s crystal clear that Michel’s actions hurt his flock, and you can’t help but feel for some of them. A lot of tears and anger surface here. Considering the subject matter, maybe it’s not fair to expect objectivity. Nonetheless, my issue with Holy Hell is that it seems to avoid painting the whole picture—a lot of detail is conspicuously missing. It isn’t a probing piece, either on a personal level—Allen’s own story of what led him to join—or on a grander scale. I don’t find Michel to be a decent person, but the story would have been far more compelling had Allen shown more than former member after former member repeating how Michel ruined his or her life. If the takeaway is that Michel is a bad guy—I didn’t need to sit through the whole film to figure that out.
The story could have benefitted from some distance and a little more audacity. A confrontation with Michel in Hawaii, where he relocated to start over, toward the end of the film hints at a great climax. It’s not—it’s a dud of an ending. No one really confronts Michel or gives any revelation about their own role in what played out. Frankly, I’m at a loss as to how any of them could have taken him seriously in the first place. Sadly, Holy Hell comes off more as a sensationalist Dateline exposé than an unbiased or informed account. Nothing about Michel or his group’s members surprised me, and I walked away with no more insight about cults than I had when I sat down to watch it. Buddhafield doesn’t seem very different from Safe Trap House, the cult in the aforementioned Strangers with Candy episode.