Friday, September 16, 2016

Weekend Watching: Holy Hell - the Rise and Fall of a Devotee

"I always wanted to know, 'Why am I here? What is the point? How do I live a meaningful life?'"
Will Allen in Holy Hell

***Warning: this film includes explicit material that viewers may find disturbing***

How does religion shape a person or group's identity? What if a religious group is one of those outliers - popularly referred to as a cult - that molds a group to stand out in radical ways from the world around them? And what if that group is dangerous?

These are perennial questions in religious studies and Holy Hell gives viewers an insider's perspective on how they play out in one such outlying group. Holy Hell was made by Will Allen, man who spent 22 years living and filming life in Buddhafield, a nomadic spiritual group that Allen - then a recent film school graduate - and many others joined in 1980s West Hollywood. Through Allen's lens, we see a group of beautiful young people become enthralled with Michel Rostand (or is that is name?) a charismatic, speedo-loving spiritual leader and performance artist. 

I am fascinated by religious innovations (I grew up in one!), especially those from the 1970s and 80s. I knew from the trailer that I would be hooked; there's just something about the combination of New Age (ish) philosophy, spandex, and banana clips that is too good to miss! I expected to find a silly remnant of hippie aspirations and West Coast religious creativity. What I didn't anticipate was the sympathy I felt for former members and the suspense and dread that I felt as stories of control, abuse, and sexual assault began to surface.

There are several revealing documentaries about Jonestown and Scientology, but Holy Hell gives the viewer something distinct: an artistic rendering of a charismatic leader and his group that changes as the filmmaker/adherent transforms from adoring devotee to heartbroken apostate. Holy Hell is a poignant (and sometimes terrifying) tale about American religious innovation, religion & mass media, religion in the American West, sexual abuse & religion, and more. Unlike many "cult" documentaries, this isn't a film about a corrupt leader (or leaders). What we see is the rise and fall of the devoted. It's about the joy of falling in love with Michel. It's about the euphoria of finding a place to belong and people who love you. It's about thriving together. And it's about the excruciating pain that an entire community feels when they realize that not everything in their ideal world is as it seems. It's about their loss.

You may come to this film for insight into religious innovations and discussions about power and sexual abuse, but you'll stay out of genuine care for the devoted.

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