The first time Will Allen picked up his camera to film the Southern California meditation guru whose charisma attracted Allen to join his group in the mid-1980’s, the guru shot Allen a hard, disapproving look.
“He never wanted me to make movies,” says Allen, who was then 22 and a recent film school graduate. “He didn’t want any record of anything. He was like, ‘What are you doing?’ He just looked at me, like, really evil.”
Allen persevered. He told Michel Rostand, who had anointed himself leader of Buddhafield, a tight-knit Los Angeles spiritual sect many would criticize as a cult, “This is what I do.” And after completing that initial short film and scoring it to The Beatles’ love ballad “Michelle,” Allen tells PEOPLE, “It made him look really good, and we all looked really fun, and he liked it.”
For the next 22 years Allen continued to film at the side of the man he called Teacher. But as he did so, Allen says a darker side of Rostand emerged: He portrays Rostand as a narcissistic sociopath and an alleged sexual manipulator with a controlling persona. Rostand’s allure and sway over his followers threads through Allen’s new documentary Holy Hell, which premieres at 9 p.m. and 11 p.m. ET Thursday on CNN.
Allen’s personal, deeply felt and revelatory inside look at the group – Los Angeles Times critic Robert Abele called it “part exposé, part catharsis and all disturbing” – examines Allen’s own participation, along with the beliefs and needs of members who, like him, have come and gone while Rostand apparently still leads others.
“A lot of people who’ve never been in a cult-type situation can relate to the psychology that we all were under,” says Allen, 53, who spent half his life, from ages 22 to 44, with Rostand before breaking from the group in 2007.
“What I was trying to explain is how the human condition keeps us in these situations for so long when abuse is happening,” he says. “That’s the hardest question to answer: Why were you there for so long?”
Idealism, bonding, spiritual longing – all were part of Rostand’s appeal, Allen says. He still praises the warm community of individuals he found within the group. But he alleges the power imbalance devolved into emotional abuse inflicted from the top.
He hopes his film sounds the alarm for any such lopsided relationship, whether personal, professional, religious or political.
“I feel strongly that we need to shine some light on narcissists and sociopaths in our society,” Allen says. “We should start asking these questions and putting our foot down.”
Allen’s even-handed film does not accuse Rostand of any crimes. But it creates a harsh portrait of Rostand – one which the leader himself rejects.
‘He Had Carte Blanche With Us’
“It is heartbreaking to see how history has been rewritten,” Rostand wrote in a statement to CNN after seeing the film, which debuted in January at the Sundance Film Festival. “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,” he wrote. “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.”
Allen initially was steered toward Buddhafield in 1985 by his sister, who invited him to the meditation group she’d been attending for about nine months in West Hollywood. At the time, Allen had just returned home to Newport Beach after finishing film school but had been kicked out of the house by his mother when she learned he was gay.
Upon meeting Rostand, “I felt like he had all the answers, and I was looking for answers, and he had an answer for everything,” he says. “That was appealing to me, his assuredness.”
He adds, “He acted as if he had experienced God and come back to help others experience it. He spoke of meditation as a sort of happiness. I was very interested in finding happiness, especially the source.”
From about 30 people in his first sessions, Allen watched the group grow to more than 100. He became almost a personal assistant to Rostand, all while serving with his camera as a sort of group documentarian.
By the third year, he says, he started seeing the inconsistencies in his Teacher’s behavior.
“Most people didn’t get to see it as much as I did,” he says. “Of course, I was also told he was enlightened, and enlightened people behaved however they wanted. He had carte blanche with us, which is how the abuse of power can come in.”
Outsiders began to call Buddhafield a cult. Allen turned his camera on his fellow members to discuss and dismiss the label. “We knew we had the characteristics of one,” he says, “but we were also convinced we weren’t and no one was getting hurt.”
“He told us what he was to us, what his role was to us, how we couldn’t do this journey without him,” Allen says of the Teacher.
“We were learning unconditional love, and that meant we have to love him unconditionally, too. Like any family, you don’t focus on the negatives. We all overlooked it. Me especially. When I would make films, I would try to make him look as good as he could, on every level.”
Dogged by the cult accusations, Rostand left Southern California in 1992 and the group re-formed in Austin, Texas, even as it began to fall apart amid growing awareness by members of Rostand’s alleged sexual manipulations and controlling nature. (Allen says he last heard that Rostand and his followers had set up in Hawaii.) Allen’s up-close access had taken its toll, and he recognized his own complicity in propping up Rostand’s aura.
“The last 10 years I didn’t want to film,” he says. “Deep down I didn’t like him anymore, but I would do it when I needed to for the group.”
Inspired by other films after he walked away from Buddhafield, Allen realized his footage told a larger story, and Holy Hell – his feature filmmaking debut – took shape.
“It’s all very convoluted and confusing,” he says of the path to his awakening, which is echoed by some 30 former members who also are interviewed in the film. “It was really about figuring that out and taking responsibility for ourselves.”
His message now to Rostand?
“Let us heal. Don’t deny our feelings. Don’t disregard our experience,” he says. “If he was a good man, he would acknowledge that and try to own his part of it.”
Holy Hell premieres at 9 p.m. and 11 p.m. ET Thursday on CNN.