This is a fascinating 20-year study of a cult leader. It is not to be missed.
I have known two men who had min-cults. One man, Tilak, moved to Las Vegas after a disgraceful long article about him and his sexual proclivities with followers was exposed in a New York Magazine cover story, “The Cult of Tilak, The Guru of West 87th Street” by Stephen J. Dubner. (June 21, 1993). I met another man at the California Institute of Holistic Studies back in the 90s who also had a devoted, obsessed following.
The New York Magazine article did nothing to destroy Tilak’s reputation. I met him in Las Vegas and spent several evenings with him and his followers. I had “the light emanating from him blowing on me” treatment.
HOLY HELL is director Will Allen’s documentary as the videographer for the leader of Buddhafield for 22 years. He left in 2007 and condensed all the footage he had accumulated. “The Teacher” is simply called Michel. He is a short man, heavily tanned and walks around – for 22 years – in a tiny speedo.
You know how cults work, a few members canvas and encourage others to join. Every member of Buddhafield was good looking. Began in 1985, soon Buddhafield develops into a strong unit of working people devoting all their free time to enlightenment. The Teacher, Michel, does deliver. He has something he does to certain initiates called “The Knowing”. Those who he deems ready are shown bliss. Interviews with former members confirm they were strongly affected. They experienced God. But Michel was stingy with The Knowing. It took one woman over a decade to be ready.
Allen does not delve into exactly what “The Knowing” was. It was not drugs. It was not hypnosis since there was no induction. Allen never asked or never found out. This is the major disappointment in the documentary. Group think and mass hypnosis is not an adequate answer.
The amazing thing that brought this documentary into play was Michel’s narcissistic, egomaniacal personality. Every moment was filmed and he started demanding plays and musicals featuring himself. He made movies.
Eventually Michel realizes he has power and starts making those Cult 101 Rules: detach from family, no sex, provide for my every thought before I think it, serve me and bathe me and every member must pay $50 for weekly one-on-one therapy sessions. Allen becomes Michel’s important intimate. He travels with him. He records everything except the cruel, mean stuff.
What pain and suffering Michel demanded from his followers was not recorded. Allen shut off the camera whenever Michel was yelling or not being nice. So we only have the former followers address this. Except one woman said that after 22 years with Michel, she left with $45, no bank account, no possessions and no skills. No children were born in the Buddhahood. An email sent around to followers in 2005 by a former member started the collapse of the cult. The former members wrote about how much sex Michel demanded from him. This opened up the whole ugly truth about Michel.
Dressing up as female deities in musical plays Michel created was not a tipoff. Neither was the long sessions with male followers. For me, the speedo would have been the alarm.
However, I must acknowledge that the great mystic, Ramakrishna, engaged in the practice of madhura bhāva, the attitude of the Gopis and Radha towards Krishna. During the practice of this bhava, Ramakrishna dressed himself in women’s attire for several days and regarded himself as one of the Gopis of Vrindavan. According to Sri Ramakrishna, madhura bhava is practiced to root out the idea of sex, which is seen as an impediment in spiritual life.
Allen has former members describe in agonizing detail the sexual abuse.
You watch the early footage and quickly think, “What a snow job! They didn’t see the outrageous behavior of Michel?” The followers believed Michel was celibate? How could they?
What is far more revealing is that Allen and the former members who appear on film truly regret the loss of the Buddhafield community. They cry. They miss everything about Buddhafield except Michel.
This is a fascinating documentary that reveals the truth behind cults. When Allen was gifted with being the chronicler of Michel, he was on the inside. He had significance in the community. People have told me about having sex with their “cult leader”. It gives them power and prestige inside the community. They have been chosen by The Master.
Michel forced young men to submit to anal sex. Women who fall into the grasp of cult leaders – not Michel’s female followers – were honored to have been selected for sex. This is quite evident in the New York Magazine piece on Tilak. Someone, told me that Tilak was not harmed by the cover story. He got more members! But he did leave New York. He has a following in Las Vegas.
HOLY HELL is absolutely fascinating and these kinds of men are continuing to attract followers with tricks and rules. Human beings are genetically designed to be followers. It’s in our DNA to surrender to a higher power, whether it is a god or a charismatic individual. We need leaders.
With Michel, who has a group following him around in Hawaii, he gives them attention, direction, and someone to honor. Alexander the Great became “the Great” by being in the front line of his army’s attacks. That is how he got his army to cross the known world and conquer it in his name. There are few Alexanders around today so we are left with the Michels.
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Member of Las Vegas Film Critics Society: www.lvfcs.org/.
Victoria Alexander lives in Las Vegas, Nevada and answers every email at firstname.lastname@example.org.