From 1985 to 2007, Will Allen was part of the Buddhafield—an initially Los Angeles-based “spiritual community” led by one Jaime Gomez aka James Gomez aka Michel Rostand aka Andreas aka Reyji (aka Dirk, the name he used in the porn he shot for Falcon in the ‘70s). Mostly, though, he was referred to as “the Teacher.” The Teacher preached abstinence and transcendence through meditation and other spiritual exercises. His 100+ followers lived together and spent years blissed out on communal joy and engaged by the promise of a state of enlightenment the Teacher referred to as “the knowing.” One former Buddhafield member says that they used to joke that if this was a cult, “at least it was a good cult.”
It was, of course, until it wasn’t. Allen, who served as the group’s documentarian, has assembled vintage footage of the Buddhafield’s rituals with modern-day interviews in the new documentary Holy Hell. The film explains not just the devastating effects it had on many of its members’ lives, but also what was so attractive about it in the first place. Like any responsible drug movie, Holy Hell illustrates why said drug is worth doing—in this case, the cult members in question were high on meditation and each other.
Earlier this week, Allen told me that making Holy Hell via the footage he had shot over the course of two decades in the Buddhafield “brought purpose to it and it brought purpose to me.” Additionally, we discussed the concept of brainwashing, his personal relationship with the Teacher (the exact nature of it is not revealed until late in the movie—so spoiler alert), his continued contact with members of the Buddhafield, and what he’s heard from the Teacher (who’s currently leading another group in Hawaii, according to Allen) regarding his movie. Below is an edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.
Gawker: What do you think about someone who watches this and laughs?
Will Allen: I love them to laugh. I think we should laugh. Truth is funny, right? We had a great crowd in L.A., at the Cinefamily, and they laughed through the first half hour. They even laughed through some of the nervous parts, the sexual parts. And it’s OK. You need to be able to absorb this without being abused yourself. Some people can laugh at it. That’s OK. I can’t control that.
What has the process of reliving this (by making it), and then reliving it at Sundance, and now reliving it again upon its official release been like for you?
The films I made during that time period were just the good stuff—the beauty. When I watched the footage again after all this time, I can remember what I was thinking at the time. Then you go and edit it and you remember what you were thinking when you edit it, and then you remember what you were thinking when you show it. You have all these different triggers to help you recall what you were really feeling even if you weren’t talking about it. Even if you were compartmentalizing it or rationalizing it away, it’s all still there. So that was hard. Hearing my friends go through stuff, I had to listen to it every day, that’s hard.
Was it therapeutic?
Yeah... honestly, let’s hope it was. I don’t think I’m out of it yet completely. It’s still happening. There’s stuff happening in Hawaii, there’s stuff happening in Austin. It was 20 years of my life. But then I went back and exposed myself to Teacher again, all of it. That’s re-traumatizing, I think. Hopefully, now I’ll get some distance from it and it won’t be traumatic and I won’t have to relieve it.
Your story is told mostly through other people. In the section of the movie about sexual abuse, your subjects describe it at length, whereas you only contribute a few sentences in voice over.
Originally I didn’t want to be in the movie. I always made movies of other people to reflect my experience. I’m not comfortable being on camera. Plus it’s a conflict of interest and [becomes] a “vanity project.” I didn’t want any of that, but as we worked through it, we knew my story was a tying story. I lived with him for 18 years, these other people didn’t. The way I looked at it was like we all have the same kind of arc—the Teacher, the group—and my arc happened earlier in the film. The first five years I considered my arc and then everything changed.
When it got to the sexual part, we got some feedback, like, “You need to be on camera for that. We need to see you.” I didn’t think I was that important in that realm. I think I captured my feelings through other people better. I’m more comfortable using images and sound to express myself.
I also interpreted that decision as a reflection of your participation in the group, since you were the official videographer.
I was a witness.
Were you actually partaking in the revelry?
Oh yeah. I would just pick my camera up every once in a while. Interestingly enough, all of the exercises you see us doing, I’d be like, “I don’t want to do this, I’ll get the camera.” I would just get the camera and hide behind it and film everyone. It was like, I’m living it through you, I’m doing it, I’m with you, but I’m also catching it and documenting it. Truth be told, we did not speak to each other about any of these things because they’re all so private between you and the Teacher. He had all of us under that spell and commitment because we all took vows.
Which are written by people who are [still following the Teacher]. They have like one username. And they know more about the subject matter than anyone who saw the movie.
...I did read this one that reflected a mindset that’s maybe indicative of the skepticism you may face when you talk about being an adult in a relationship with another adult against your will. I think you responding to it might be a good way of literalizing this issue: “As far as the guy that claims he was sexually forced, I have a hard time believing that story. For all those years? And don’t give me the ‘brainwashed’ excuse. That’s what people say when they don’t want to be held accountable for their actions.”
We want to be held accountable. We want to talk about it and tell you what we were thinking and why and try to get the bottom of how. Chris, who uses the word “coerced,” he has people come up all the time like, “How did this happen to you?” We don’t want to throw it all on brainwashing. There’s all these other elements that were involved in our community that made it possible. I almost didn’t want to use the word “brainwashing” [in the movie] because I think that’s a copout, too. One [subject] said it and I liked how she delivered it. It was hard for us to use the word “cult,” too. That seemed like a copout. She was like, “I was in a c-c-cult and I was br-br-brainwashed.” She says it like it’s hard for her even to admit it. I let her say it. But that’s not my easy out. Much more complicated.
If I were to tell my story, you’d see that I was in love with him. We all were. I was not attracted to him sexually, though. I got so deep into it. He was giving me so much. He was taking care of me. The group was taking care of me. My job was: “Of course.” My persona was yes. He just tricked me in so many different ways, and I hate to say “trick.” They make you feel special: “This is just between you and me.” He’s say, “My teacher did this with us.” You trust this person. It didn’t happen ‘till three and a half years into it and I already trusted him. He hadn’t done anything to hurt me yet, and I didn’t think he would. But I was also of the mentality at the time that he had given me so much and I wanted to give back.
When he told me, “This is gonna happen,” I remember going, “Why is he asking me to do this?” At least I was gay. Plus, he was having me be abstinent so it was like, “Wow, at least I get to have an orgasm once a week.” He told me not to have sex and then he was like, “Well, now I can help you. We can do it.” I didn’t say no. I couldn’t say no. I didn’t voice my own needs. The paradigm of the group was that you’re surrendering your preferences and going beyond yourself. Those who had stronger personalities and stronger boundaries, maybe these things didn’t happen to them. He knew he couldn’t get in there. I had no boundaries. I didn’t know boundaries until I got out of the group.
All of this is notable given that you were rejected by your mother for being gay, and then you found yourself in a situation where your sexuality was exploited.
When I got to the group, because there was such unconditional love energy amongst everybody and they didn’t care if you were gay or straight or anything, it was the first time that I felt like, “I’m not just a gay man. I’m not just defining myself by this confusing sexuality that I’m trying to own.” I was 22. I felt really accepted and loved. That wasn’t the Teacher, though. The Teacher was in charge of us all feeling that, he kind of taught us that, but it was each other. We just loved each other. No one cared. We were talking about bigger things and higher concepts. Sex was just a body function. It wasn’t so big.
Was there drug use involved at all?
The exercises in the documentary are described as having a drug-like effect. Was it actually like taking LSD—I don’t know if you’ve ever done it?
Yeah, I’ve done LSD. I had done ecstasy because it had just come out [in the mid-‘80s].
And the feeling was like that?
Yes! One of the subjects in the film says, “It was addictive.” It was! Love is a drug. When I had done ecstasy before I came into the group, I tapped into this unconditional love. You love everyone—very touchy, very no boundaries, everything’s all warm and loving. When I got into the group, I think the first or second time I came to a meeting, the Teacher said, “Everything we’re looking for in drugs is within you. The drug is just a synthetic thing that’s opening a door that’s already there. That has no value because you become dependent on a drug. What has value is to find that, tap into that organically, and to have that access to it.” I was like, “Yes.”
So, he was right.
He was right. We would all start experiencing love—what I call “love,” I’m being general—my connection to it was ecstasy. You become intoxicated from a lot of meditation. There’s also power in groups meditating. The Teacher used to say it was like being near a tuning fork—you know when you put a vibrating tuning fork next to another one that one vibrates too? Because of the energy? We’d get together, we’d have these high experiences. And that was very satisfying.
Do you have any legal standing to sue the Teacher?
If I were to go after him legally now, which would be hard because you’d have to have people with him now to tell us this because of the statute of limitations—he’s calling [his services] “healings” now, “spontaneous healings,” which is bullshit. We all know it. I’ve seen him lie about this. He believes that your love for him and your trust in him will suspend your disbelief enough to heal yourself. When I mentioned these spontaneous healings to [Prophet’s Prey author] Sam Brower, he told me they were illegal. Our government takes that very seriously because they try to protect everybody from snake oil-type people promising healing. People go to healers all the time and they don’t get healed. The government likes to think they can step in and protect people from that. That would be something we could get him for if we wanted to. But we’d have to prove it. I’ve been busy making a movie about it. I’m not against it. I’m actually getting angrier as I move forward. This has been a process for me to even get angry [chokes up]. Just because, you know, you don’t want to be a victim.
What have you heard from him regarding the movie?
“This is all lies,” of course. I know that he’s stuck on Hawaii because he doesn’t have a passport. He can go anywhere in America but he can’t leave the country without renewing his passport. His passport’s running out, because we got it at the same time and mine is running out in two months. And then I heard from someone that’s with him that he can’t find his passport. That’s a good thing. I know that he’s biding his time, hoping this all goes away. He’s hiding. Everyone’s kind of dispersed. He hasn’t changed any of his routines. He’s still living the life with everyone taking care of him. I thought he would leave right away, but he’s a creature of habit.
You’re still in touch with the people you were in Buddafield with. You haven’t quite...
Broken away? We’re still together. It’s like Vietnam. People go to war and they have this bonding experience. You just had to be there. We can’t explain it. I had a partner for two years, and we talked about it for two hours a day. I still couldn’t get it all out. We’re not all connected, though. I might have 60 friends on Facebook from that period. I don’t talk to them. I think they’re all my family. If someone was sick, if something happened to one of them, I would go right away just because I have such a deep connection to them and I want to be there. But I don’t need to spend time with them. There’s maybe three or four or ten that are really close. Not all personalities got along or needed to get along.
There’s that phrase you guys used to say: “You need to drop your mind.” Do you feel like you’ve picked yours back up?
Yeah. I still drop it, of course, we all have to. I think making this film has helped me do that. It’s been a process. It wasn’t until the end of it, the last year when I started having support from people, because I was fumbling through the story. I was being honest, but I was editing myself—not wanting to say that or not knowing if I was right. I dropped those opinions so hard I wasn’t sure what I thought anymore. I had to reformulate that. I grew back into owning my thoughts and opinions.
Holy Hell is in select theaters Friday.