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The Totally Insane Story of Holy Hell Director Will Allen’s Escape From a Cult

Religious cults have long been a cinematic fascination (see: The Master, Rosemary’s Baby, Martha Marcy May Marlene), but when have you seen actual documentary footage of what happens inside of one? Twenty-two years of documentary footage, to be exact.

Will Allen, director of Holy Hell — which premiered on CNN last night (encores Saturday 9/3 at 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. EST) and can be found on iTunes and Amazon — joined a New Age spiritual group called Buddhafield when he was just out of film school, and spent half his life recording the antics and indoctrinations of its eccentric guru. Alternately named The Teacher, Michel, and Andreas (né Jaime Gomez), the guru was an aspiring actor who’d appeared in porn and once as an extra in, of all movies, Rosemary’s Baby. He offered them a chance to be closer to God and a community of like-minded souls devoted to a drugs-, alcohol-, and sex-free lifestyle. He also rarely wore anything other than a Speedo and eyeliner, insisted his disciples perform elaborate ballets and follow him around with a special throne for him to sit on, and required all of them to take different names. There was also a darker side to his behavior [spoilers ahead]: He kept one member from seeing her dying father; threatened another with expulsion if she didn’t get an abortion; “suggested” that certain followers get plastic surgery (of which he’d had much himself); and held weekly, private hypnotherapy sessions that turned into years of sexual abuse for many of his young male devotees, including Allen.

When a flood of abuse allegations led most of his original followers, including Allen, to abandon him in 2007, the guru, who now goes by Reyji (which means “God-King”) simply rebuilt in Oahu, where he and a handful of his original devotees recruit new followers through yoga classes. He sent spies to Holy Hell’s debut screenings at Sundance this January, and has instructed disciples to physically threaten former members who appear in it. We spoke to Allen, who said he cried every day for four years making this documentary, about his Buddhafield experience and the harrowing, ongoing attacks of putting his movie into the world.

I was at one of the screenings in Sundance and it seemed like you and all of your Buddhafield friends who escaped and spoke out in the movie were still trying to process what was up on that screen. It was so fresh.
That’s very true. All my friends, I love them so much — these are my close friends and family — they didn’t get to see the film until it aired in public. None of them said, “I want to see it first, please, before I agree.” They knew me as a filmmaker, they knew me as a person, they trusted me. They were all in the audience for the first time, crying and sobbing, seeing their life up onscreen, both directly and indirectly, because I’m not able to tell everyone’s individual story. I was able to put all of our stories as one story, and everyone approved and felt it. One of my friends, Radhia Gleis, said it was like watching a horror film for her.

You put all this footage together, but do you still have that feeling when you watch it?
I still cry at the right moments. [Laughs.] I feel so much for my friends. When my friends hurt, I hurt. All that footage is charged for me because it’s all living, breathing memories, so I haven’t been able to step away from all of it completely yet. But I’m fine. [Laughs.]

Are there specific things The Teacher was doing that now, watching it back, you find funny?
Funny, absolutely. We thought he was quite a jokester, and he had a great sense of humor. I’ve never laughed so hard as I’d laughed in those years. We took ourselves not so seriously, but we took God very seriously, so when it comes down to his control and his power and his manipulation, there’s nothing funny about that. Looking back on it and really taking responsibility for myself and my part in it, for allowing so much of it to happen and trusting him more than myself, I’m angry that I let this man to suppress me for so long. That’s kind of what the film was trying to be about: How did we allow this to happen? We all didn’t have all the knowledge, but we still had our intuition somewhere deep in there and we weren’t listening to it.

The film does a good job of pointing out The Teacher’s ridiculousness without patronizing the people who followed him. When did you have the hindsight to realize, “We were following a guy who was always in a Speedo and made us do bizarre ballet performances?”
I was on NPR All Things Considered and they asked me that question, and I was like, “We’ve got to get past the Speedo part because in Europe Speedos are everywhere. And I was on the water polo team and the swim team and I wore Speedos — that was not biggest flag!” [Laughs.] That was just like, “Okay, we’ve got a guy in a Speedo and he’s from Europe and he likes wearing makeup. Okay.” But he was also an example of this free-flowing energy and love, kind of unedited, that was not embarrassed, that was not apologizing, and that was very attractive to those of us who were still trying to be comfortable in our own skin. The flags that are more telling are that he would lie all the time. He was borrowing other teacher’s words from books that we weren’t allowed to read. We were forbidden to seek outside information. How could someone have asked that of us, and how could we have agreed to that? But that was the spiritual deal that we had to make to stay around him.

Have you thought about why you wanted to be in this group?
I have. I was also trying to find parallels in a cultlike situation, like are we all co-dependent, needy people? I think my religious upbringing had a lot to do with it. I was raised Catholic, and Catholicism is a big suspension of disbelief, if you look at it. It’s a big narrative, illogical, magical. There’s two statistics on why intelligent people can be taken by con men. One, they’re in transition in their life and they’re looking for assistance and answers. And con men come off as confident, like, “I have these answers and I can give them to you.” And another thing is also this magical element. They promise magic. “If you do this, you’ll get this, and this magical thing will happen!” That’s really appealing to a lot of people who know there’s more going on in this world than we can see with our eyes.

I would say that at that age [22], I was searching for truth, for the answers, and meditation came as an answer. Also, as a filmmaker right out of college, I was looking for the answer to creativity, and my first meeting with The Teacher, he said, “Meditation is the well from which creativity comes from.” I was like, “Yeah! I never need to be frustrated again!” I didn’t want to experience the downside of life. I only wanted to experience the highs, without drugs or alcohol. So that’s where I was at, and I don’t reprimand myself for that.

How did you walk away with all this footage, given how controlling he was?
Well, because the group broke up in Austin and he went on the run in the middle of the night, just like he did in 1991 [in Los Angeles, where the group was formed]. Boom! Middle of the night. Gone. Pack your bags. Well, it happened again 14 years later — and I’m sure it’s going to happen now in Hawaii. And I was with him because I was still his chauffeur, and all my films were left in my house and my friend went and got them for me. But we didn’t get all of them. Lots were thrown away, and he has some of my copyright material, and I think he’s started recruiting new people with my films. My films used to make him look really good.

I read that you stopped filming if he yelled or acted out?
Imagine you and me in a room and I reach for the camera; of course you’re going to be like, “Oh my God, there’s a camera on,” and everything would change and he would stop and wouldn’t really show his personality. I also out of respect knew not to film him when he was in a bad mood. Which made the film hard, because so many of the bad things were never recorded.

Why did he want to be filmed so much?
I don’t know that he wanted to be filmed so much. Eventually he really loved it. But I think I had the need to film. It was my personality, my ego, maintaining a bit of self-identity by picking up a camera, because that’s who I was. He told me not to film at the beginning, the first few years. And I was like, “Why? This is so amazing!” And he eventually let me film. But he’s very secretive. When people would leave the group, he would literally have people break into their house and take anything that had his image on it because he didn’t want the public to know who he was. So I think inadvertently, by me making all these movies, he saw me as somebody who could never be allowed to leave because I knew too much. I, of course, was very innocent to that part of him and I didn’t know that he was trying to keep me there for so long, that he went out of his way to keep me there.

Why keep you around in particular?
Because I was around him for so long. I knew him better than most people, I saw more, I filmed more, and he also had an abusive sexual relationship with me that he called a consensual relationship. Those were all secrets and lies that he was very, very protective about.

Did you understand it as an abusive sexual relationship?
I didn’t. It was, and I didn’t register it as that. It’s abuse of power, it’s abuse of a therapist with his trusted client, it’s abuse of a religious figure, a priest. Submission is not consent. Going into a situation where you are submissive and surrendered to someone you’re trusting, that’s not consensual. There’s a big difference.

Since I’ve been out of the group I’ve had consensual sex and nothing but consensual sex, where there’s two people on the same page and they both know what they’re doing, there’s no power trip. This was not that. It was pure selfish sex for him.

Once you left the group did it take you a while to get to a point where you could have consensual sexual relationships?
After I got out of the group, I didn’t get into a relationship for two years, and when I did, it was [with] a beautiful man who was a trauma specialist, who worked with trauma that’s lodged in the body, the somatic experience. And he was so tender and loving with me and would never push me past anything I was comfortable with. That’s when I started to understand the difference between what had happened to me and how people should be treating each other.

The teacher mostly abused male virgins, out of fear of contracting AIDS, correct? 
Yeah, I figured that out. He was grooming men, and this is my theory from my experience, but he would never let anyone get tested for AIDS. We weren’t allowed because he said our mind and our fear would create it, and even if we were HIV-negative. But because you couldn’t get tested, he would tell us not to have sex either. So we were not having sex, supposedly, and not getting tested. Later I realized that he wanted all his little concubine men that he got involved with to be clean so they wouldn’t bring anything to him, because he was never going to get tested. Now, there was one boy that he kept virginal for 20 years before he took his virginity, and the boy trusted him. “Oh, this is so beautiful. He’s doing this to help me.” And really, no, he’d been manipulating him for years, and then he would have sex with him without a condom because he knew it was safe, and that was shocking to me. Just unbelievably shocking.

Did you have any healthy relationships while you were inside the group?
I thought I did. It was still a fantasy relationship. But I met a guy when I was 39. I was no longer bound to The Teacher for sex, but I was told not to have sex. I met a man who I fell in love with upon first sight, and The Teacher told me, “Don’t you dare get in that relationship.” And I said, “Fuck you! I’m fucking 39 years old. I’m bored. I want to have a relationship.” And I did. And this man helped me get out of the group, and I’m forever grateful to him. We were in a five-year relationship, and he’s married now! [Laughs.] He was a true bisexual.

Another part of the film I found very disturbing was when women were made to get plastic surgery.
Women!? [Laughs.] You’d be lucky if the women got it. The men got it! He had some people put in cheek implants to see how it would look so he could maybe do it. He’d have people do their lips and chin implants before he did it. Or he did it to some people he thought needed it, and that’s ridiculous and rude, honestly. “You need to be prettier!” And it’s like, Okay, I thought we were all beautiful God beings. I guess not good enough! Yeah, he would do all this, and it all seemed in good humor. It didn’t seem ill or sick or manipulative at the time. He made everything like a game and we played along, and people were challenged by his challenges and would try to overcome their own personality to do what he wanted them to do.

Was it known in the group that people were getting plastic surgery?
Back in the day I remember some guy came back with a big bandage around his head and he said he had a molar pulled out and everyone was like, “Yeah, sure.” Everyone would just lie. Boob jobs were happening and it was like, “Oh no, it was auto-suggestion. I listened to an audio tape and my boobs got bigger.” And I believed it! I would defend it! I’d be like, “No, I saw her every day. I don’t know when she got her boobs done, but I don’t think she did. I think she listened to the tape.” And even to this day, I haven’t asked her, but she went from flat-chested to a D.

You went with him to Hawaii after he fled Austin and 200 of your friends abandoned him. How did you find the strength to leave?
When everybody started coming out with all the pain and lies and hurt and the deception, and I got to see how he lied and denied things I knew were true, and when my dear friends started to get their power back and their moral compass back, I was like, “I’m with you. Please don’t leave me here. I was stuck in this horrible situation helping this man because I thought he was helping you, so when you leave, I leave.” It was kind of like Alice and the mirror. The mirror broke and I was free. But I didn’t have the strength to free myself from my obligations and my vows until there was nothing left to serve, in my mind.

And it took me years. I was never planning on making a movie. It wasn’t until I went to Sundance in 2012, four years before we showed the film, when my partner at the time, the trauma-specialist guy, he’s like, “Will, you need to tell your story. You need to be a filmmaker.” And I said, “I don’t know how. I gave my whole life up.” He said, “Go to Sundance and just introduce yourself as who you are.” So I did, and that’s when I decided to make my own film. But it took me four years out of the group to get there.

At Sundance, was The Teacher sending spies to see the movie?
Yeah, apparently he had the movie in his hands the second day.

Someone recorded it from the theater?
The first rumor I heard was that he saw the movie. The second rumor I heard was “He’s heard the movie,” so maybe someone recorded the audio to see what was said, so he could know how to dispute it, how to spin it. I don’t know. I wasn’t in his turf to know what he was privy to.

[The Teacher’s formal statement on the film: “It is heartbreaking to see how history has been rewritten. Holy Hell is not a documentary, rather, it is a work of fiction designed to create drama, fear and persecution; that is what sells. I am saddened by this attempt to obscure the message of universal love and spiritual awakening. It is devastating to see these friends, who were once so filled with love for the world, become so angry. I wish them only the best, and hold each one close to my heart. If any of my actions were a catalyst for their disharmony, I am truly sorry.  May all beings find peace, Michel.]

Is it going to be shown in Hawaii, where he’s still in hiding?
We just got back from Hawaii, and it was shown there at the Honolulu Film Festival. It sold out the first night. We’re glad; it brought the police out that are looking for him now.

The police are looking for him?
Yeah, the police are looking for him for questioning. And the outside community there is very, very supportive. They want to know what’s going on.

Do you still have friends from the original group who are now in Hawaii?
I wouldn’t call them my friends any longer. I would call them family members, you know? [Laughs.] They’re people I care for. I know them very well. We’re not in communication anymore. Once you leave the group you really don’t talk to each other anymore, so that friendship is severed. If they were ever to come back into the world and into critical thinking, I would be friends with them again. I have no hard feelings against them other than if they’re trying to undermine my truth or trying to disqualify my feelings. I have a huge problem with that.

Have people left the group in Hawaii since the movie has started being shown at festivals and online?
Yes! We’ve had some amazingly beautiful stories. I’d say 20, 30, 40 people have already left, people who were recruited in Hawaii, who never came from Austin. The handful of people who came from Austin, the 10 percent or 8 percent who stayed with him, that refused to listen to everyone else’s stories, they started a group again with him and recruited new people through yoga and through different parts of the community. And all those people who’ve been with him, when I talked to them, they said there was always this underlying suspicion and doubt and mistrust, that they were never allowed to ask questions, and they never felt comfortable. So when the movie came out they all just left because it confirmed the things they already felt.

They were able to see it in Hawaii?
Yeah, it’s on iTunes and it’s on Amazon, so they were able to see it that way. The Honolulu Film Festival was about 15 days after the iTunes release, so a lot of them saw it before it came to Hawaii, but they were afraid to come to the theater because everyone’s afraid to be targeted by them. They’re a very small community in Hawaii and they don’t want it to affect their reputations. And I totally understand it. And their protection and privacy is very important to me, but I’m also relieved that there are smart, critical-thinking people who have integrity who stepped aside and said, “I don’t believe this anymore.” Even though it felt good and even though they loved each other and they had great friends, it’s hard to leave that. It’s like an ugly divorce.

What’s going on with the police in Hawaii?
One of our characters, Murti Hower, was assaulted in an alley about a month after Sundance with death threats — “I’m going to fucking come after you if you bring that fucking movie to this island. You’re hurting our businesses. I’m going to find you and kill you.” So those reports were given to the police and they tracked down the guy. The guy’s address was the same as The Teacher’s address. He’s his bodyguard. Now, whether The Teacher told him to do it or not, The Teacher is behind everything. He creates a volatile environment around him where he gets everybody all up in arms and they all protect him.

That happened to Murti, and his wife was 15 feet away, and they have been a wreck. They filed police reports, and it’s still under investigation. When we left the island a week ago they were like, “You guys are leaving us here with them.” This group, they bully people. We did a mailer in the three-mile radius around where he lives to make the community aware of the film and that he doesn’t want anyone to see it, and we have reports of people taking the flyers out of mailboxes and ripping them up. These were mailed through the U.S. Postal Service, so that’s a federal offense.

Today, are you in a relationship?
I met a man a month after I started making this movie in 2012, who I fell in love with, but I had this huge undertaking and I devoted every day of my life for four years to this film, and I was not able to give my energy to somebody else. Which was sad. So we had a long-distance relationship that broke up, and I’m single. But I’m feeling very loving now. I feel very able and willing to find my man, that I can share myself with without losing myself.

Maybe you needed to have the catharsis of making this movie to do that.
I did. I needed to get this behind me. And I made the movie thinking that maybe only 12 people would see it.

Does it feel like a weight off?
I think the weight will feel off when I have a break, like maybe next week. Everyone says I need a month off.

Don’t go to Hawaii!
[Laughs.] You know, I want to, because I love that place. I have so many friends there. I’m thinking Bali, but don’t tell anybody.

How the Holy Hell Director Escaped From a Cult