Director William Francesco Allen stumbled upon a treasure trove of footage for his documentary Holy Hell and yet, the execution is so poor that I can’t recommend the film. The film is an inside look at a cult that was formed by a charismatic teacher during the 1980s. It recounts the rise and fall of the group as captured by filmmaker Will Allen and his library of archival footage that spans his more than 25 years spent with The Buddahfield, and its ultra eccentric leader Michel Rostand, who we will later find out was Jaime Gomez … or Andreas … or Reyji … depending on the year really.
The film begins with Allen joining his sister in her search for enlightenment and spiritual awakening. They’re trying to figure out what exactly is the meaning of life. A considerable question due to the fact that we’ve all probably pondered whether there was a greater purpose. Of course religion, but more importantly cults, get built and founded through this question alone. You do need a charismatic leader as well, to persuade the following that he does have the answer or, in the case of Holy Hell, “The Knowing” which is something his followers try to pursue to achieve the path to true enlightenment and God.
The footage captured is both bewilderingly creepy and fascinating and I should mention that Michel seems to always be walking around in a Speedo, Ray-Bans and heavy eye-liner to boot. He has a messiah complex which is the only way you can convince a cult that you’re the messiah, but the Speedo and Ray-Ban shtick seems to be working on the gullibility of his followers as well, they love his look! They’ll do anything for him, quite literally anything as we come to find out later in the film.
Is the film biased in its approach of the followers being the victims and the leader being the deceitful evil one? It is, of course, all a matter of perspective. Yes, the leader seems to be charismatic enough to pull this whole enterprise together, but some of the stuff that happens far exceeds the reasoning that they were being brainwashed. I mean, at a certain point, you do have to think how a person can be so gullible or, I’ll push it further, selfish enough to embark on such a spiritual quest for years on end. People will exploit interpersonal relationships just to fulfill a desire to be important and that’s what it seems many in the group were doing. While performing some of the rituals Michel demanded of them, you can clearly see in their faces exactly how special they thought they were by doing them. They wanted to rebel against family and friends, but by doing this quasi-hokey riverdance shtick?
It’s not just that, the filmmaking is also weak encompassing many of the non-fiction clichés that belong in film school 101 courses. The editing seems to also have a bias accompanying it with a one-sided argument that doesn’t give way to any other point of view. The foundation is there for a good documentary to happen, but the fact that amateurish filmmaking got in the way of the story really does a major disservice to the overall story.