Monday, May 30, 2016

Will Allen | Holy Hell

staring over
by Douglas Messerli

Will Allen (director) Holy Hell / 2016
For 22 years Will Allen was a member of the little known Los Angeles and later Austin, Texas spiritual cult, the Buddhafield. As a filmmaker, he quickly became the group’s official photographer, and Allen, a true believer for most of those years, was able to capture visions of what it was like to live with cult members, interviewing them on an immediate “you are there” level, and revealing actual teachings and the behavior of cult leader, Michel, who later changed his name to Andreas.

Through Allen’s camera we can observe a large group of beautiful and intelligent young men and women, most of whom seemingly felt something was missing in the world, and found new spiritual meaning in the kind of touchy-feely, hands-on teaching of the Bann-Ray wearing, speedo-clad guru. Although he claimed to be a psychotherapist, providing them regular sessions in which they were encouraged to live out difficult times in the past, most of Michel’s teachings, at least in our brief encounters with them, seem to have consisted of only vague mutterings of the necessity of finding the inner, true self and giving up consciousness to the great indefinable spirit of god.

      Indeed Michel often seems like, he himself, was in a kind of trance, moving slowly and speaking in quiet utterings. Like so many cult leaders, Michel—a handsome, six-packed-abbed former ballet dancer—offered his disciples a kind of sexually-charged teacher, although he often spoke against sexual activity among group members and argued for a kind of chastity among them, suggesting that his kind of religious exploration demanded there be no children to distract them from their spiritual search. When some of the women became pregnant, he demanded that they have abortions. And, at one point, one of the disciples points out that no children were born into the flock.
       Mostly what Michel seems to have effected was a kind of joyous spontaneity among his followers. Group hugs in a nearby lake, late night forest dances, an ecstatic laying on of hands and other interactions made his disciples feel that—without drugs, alcohol, or other mind- expanding substances—that they were on a permanent LSD high, seeing colors and experiencing out of body sensations. Special ceremonies such as “the Knowing,” transcendent knowledge provided only to a few members of the group, made some feel that they had discovered the secrets of the universe.

        Many of the flock had daily jobs and lived otherwise quite normal lives—at least in the first years of the group. And to one another and even those outside they appeared quite normal, mocking the notion that they might be seen as a cult. Some, like Allen himself, were brought into the Buddhahead by their own siblings: his sister had been a long-time follower before he joined, and later they convinced another sister to join. What is most clear is that this congregation found themselves in what they saw as a near-paradisiacal situation simply because of the beauty and energy of one another. Everyone helped everyone else; cooking and cleaning was a communal activity, and if some were in need, others came to their help. Several daily toiled at their jobs and then offered to do “service” for the group. Some regularly took care of Michel, cooking his food, cleaning his quarters, even providing him with a dance studio, and a kind lounge chair which can almost be perceived of as a throne.

      Healthy food, extensive exercise (including regular dance lessons required for all) were advocated. When the group moved to Austin, members helped build a small aviary replete with peacocks and other birds and even built a new theater in which Michel could create dances and theatrical presentations only witnessed by group members. What is perhaps most memorable about Allen’s documentary is just how creative the Buddhahead members, under Michel’s direction, were. They presented early satiric videos, full ballets, lavishly costumed theatrical productions and other events that show us just how productive members had become.
      By this time, however, things had gradually begun to change. Michel had encouraged some members, including Allen and his siblings, to “detach” from their families, even changing their names. An anti-cult group began to speak out against Michel and his teachings. Most important, Michel himself had begun to change, shifting from the purely spiritual to the theatrical,  contradicting his edicts on the unimportance of the body by wearing heavy makeup daily and undergoing numerous facial surgeries, which he demanded others try before undergoing them himself.

      Michel also grew increasingly paranoid, determining, after becoming the target of the anti-cult group, to move his members out of California. After months of searching, he chose Austin, and once there, grew even more paranoid when the federal government attacked David Koresh in nearby Waco. Allen’s film reveals these changes even in the face of the guru, as it becomes more and more elongated and gaunt, transforming him from the handsome South American who claimed to have been an actor (he had had a small role in Polanski's Rosemary’s Baby) and whom some rumored had been a former porn star (by film’s end we discover that he had, in fact, performed in several gay sex films). Despite the group’s faithful adherence to his now somewhat tempestuous behavior, rumors began to build. Some members left the group and, as in many such religious gatherings, were shunned or even threatened with death upon leaving.
      Finally, when a former member wrote a group email revealing that Michel had sexual abused him for years, things began to fall apart. Although at first dismissing the facts, many of the males began admitting to their compatriots that they had had sex with Michel, in and outside of their private sessions, for years—Allen, who has openly gay, included. Many of those men, however, were heterosexual and detested the sexual activities. Allen, himself, was obviously damaged by the secrets he was forced to keep.

       One by one, they seemed to awaken to the fact that it had not been the totally narcissistic and self-centered Michel who had made their group special, but themselves. Like awakening from a bad dream, they began to perceive just how much they had been manipulated through his deep knowledge of each of them, which had used by their leader. As more and more members left, they felt, as several report, like they had seen a bombing of their little community, and were now stranded alone after years of love and nurturing. 
       One of the group describes the fact that, like any religious group, they bonded simply by their love and caring for each other, without realizing that there were no coherent ideas or logical religious tenants. Their amazement of the world lay within their own beings, not in the leadership of Michel.
      Some few stayed, while others like Allen, although hating Michel, still did not wish his destruction. Several helped him to move to Hawaii, where he remains today, devotees gathering still round him as if he were still some magical presence.
     The fact, as another former member proclaims, is that there are hundreds of such cults in nearly every town and city, places where needy individuals find a home and come together, often without even realizing that the communities they now find to be so meaningful emanate from themselves, not from some godhead. 
      What Michel did was to betray them, to selfishly lie to them, to pretend he was something other than he was: a mere human being, desperate, apparently, like his followers, simply to be loved. All the males with whom he had sex were adults—he was no pedophile or even rapist. But the power and sway he held over his “disciples” was an abuse of power, if nothing else. And in those lies and betrayals he destroyed something which otherwise had become very meaningful to them. Their tears, accordingly, are not simply about sexual abuse, but about their own recognition of just how much they had given up of themselves for this seemingly transcendent experience, and that their awakening often meant that they had to start up their lives all over again.

Los Angeles, May 30, 2016

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