CNN Films: Holy Hell

The search for a Speedo-wearing guru

Honolulu (CNN)"Dipsh*t!" "Dumb ass!"

"Call off your psychotic Chihuahua wife!"
So much for peace, love and good karma.
We're attending a screening at the 27th annual Honolulu Rainbow Film Festival, and midway through a Q&A session with the cast of tonight's documentary the mood turns dark, more like "Friday Night Fights." The circle of security guards tightens, just in case. People in the front rows get ready to duck. Some stand and approach the stage.
    Are these two dudes, a yoga teacher and a hairdresser by trade, really about to start swinging? What in the name of holy hell is going on?
    "Holy Hell," in fact, is the reason everyone is packed into the Doris Duke Theatre at the Honolulu Museum of Art on a steamy Friday night in August. It's the name of Will Allen's documentary, backed by Academy Award-winning actor-musician-investor Jared Leto, and it tells the story of how Allen and his friends spent more than two decades in a New Age-style spiritual group they called the Buddhafield.
    In his search for enlightenment, Allen followed an eccentric, Speedo-wearing guru from West Hollywood to Austin, Texas, and then to Hawaii's Lanikai Beach, about a 45-minute drive from this theater. One night about 10 years ago, he simply left the guru behind, here in Hawaii.
    He walked away in the wake of allegations that the guru had been sexually abusing young male followers for years. Allen says he was one of them.
    In the decade since, Allen and his Buddhafield friends have moved on, but a new group has grown up in their place. So Allen has come back to Hawaii to lay his film at the feet of his former guru. He sees "Holy Hell" as a cautionary tale, and wants people here to know what happened to him and his friends -- so it won't happen to them.
    That's why fear and loathing are sweeping the yoga studios of Oahu, and why death threats are being reported to police. It's why people are eyeing each other at the Whole Foods store in the Kailua Town Center and wondering, "Are you in that cult?"
    And it's why Murti Hower and Jentry Petzold look like they're about to throttle each other up on stage.
    The two men met in Austin and say they love each other like brothers. But there's one big difference between them: Hower, one of the original Buddhafield recruiters featured in the film, no longer follows the teacher. As for Petzold, well, all he'll say is his relationship with the teacher is far more cordial.
    Petzold and another emissary, Martin Doluz, insist they aren't in a cult, and that their guru isn't brainwashing or sexually abusing anybody. The both say they owe him everything. The loose collection of followers, many tied into Oahu's yoga and health-food communities, isn't organized enough to qualify as a "group," they insist.
    It doesn't even have a name.
    But the others on stage -- director Allen and some who appear in the film, Hower, Chris Johnston, Julian Goldstein, Radhia Gleis and Alessandra Burenin -- all say they were brainwashed and manipulated. Looking back, they have no doubt that the Buddhafield was a cult.
    Along the way, they say, they lost their spiritual innocence, their identities and even their ability to make decisions for themselves.
    Now they say they're hearing disturbing things from friends on the island, that the master they knew as Andreas is not laying low, as he'd promised them he would. He's collecting new acolytes and calling himself "Reyji." It means "God-King."
    Concerned neighbors say he has taken to walking the streets of Lanikai in disguise -- with a cane and wearing a white surgical mask. But Doluz insists that's another spiritual leader who has taken up residence on the island with a band of followers.
    But, just before the film festival, Andreas moved to a bigger, more secure home nearby. Alllen's spies are calling this compound "The Fortress."
    Those close to Reyji see the filmmaker's actions as an aggression. This impression is underscored when a mass mailing marketing the film hits every mailbox within a three-mile radius of Lanikai Beach.
    "The film he doesn't want you to see," says one side of a postcard announcing that "Holy Hell" is available on iTunes, Amazon and soon will be on Netflix. (The documentary also airs on CNN at 9 p.m. Thursday.)
    Hower, meanwhile, says he's being harassed, more so now that the film is being shown on the island he calls home. He's afraid of what will happen when everybody else goes home.
    The on-stage fireworks with Petzold blow over. Still, tensions run high in the community as "Holy Hell" is unleashed on the unsuspecting island of Oahu.

    From Will to Francesco

    I meet Will Allen for the first time at the Novel Café in Santa Monica, California, not far from his place. It's the type of neighborhood where people who are into meditation, yoga and kale feel right at home.
    A quick breakfast turns into a three-hour talkathon. He seems funny and sweet, and there is a boyish innocence about him. I wonder if that's what happens when you go a couple of decades without carrying the responsibilities of kids and a soul-sucking day job.
    Allen is 53 now, with flecks of gray in his tousled mop of hair, but he spent the years 22 to 44 inside the Buddhafield. He was just out of college, a bit adrift, when a sister introduced him to the group in West Hollywood. He says he was a prime recruit, and vulnerable. He'd just come out as gay, and his mother hadn't taken it as well as he'd hoped. In fact, he says, she kicked him out of the family home in an upscale neighborhood in Southern California.
    At 22, Allen didn't know if he wanted to be a filmmaker, although it had been his dream for as long as he could remember. Now, three decades later, he is one.
    CNN Films' 'Holy Hell': The allure of Michel
    CNN Films' 'Holy Hell': The allure of Michel

      JUST WATCHED

      CNN Films' 'Holy Hell': The allure of Michel

    MUST WATCH

    CNN Films' 'Holy Hell': The allure of Michel 00:57
    And, as the Buddhafield's official videographer, he's sitting on what might be the largest collection of tapes showing life inside a modern-day cult.
    Make no mistake: Life inside the Buddhafield did take on some of the widely accepted hallmarks of a cult. Members' egos and identities were stripped away. Most followers didn't get to keep the names they came with; they were assigned new ones. The group's focus shifted subtly over the years; instead of delving into themselves for enlightenment, members of the Buddhafield were encouraged to worship their guru. One acolyte, Julian Goldstein, showed his devotion by carving elaborate fruit salads; his masterpiece was the Last Supper.
    Julian Goldstein created a fruit salad resembling the Last Supper for the leader of the Buddhafield, Michel.
    Will's name was changed to Francesco. One day in Hawaii, before his film is screened, I shoot him a text about all the events he's juggling, noting that it can't be easy to be Will Allen. He responds, "It wasn't easy being Francesco, either."
    The Buddhafield had caught the attention of cult-watcher Rick Ross by the early 1990s. So the guru simply packed up and left in the middle of the night, checking out the legendary vortexes of Sedona, Arizona, before ultimately relocating in Austin. Radhia Gleis, a former member, says she supplied the down payment for a sprawling ranch house on enough acreage to accommodate koi ponds and an aviary.
    The guru, who had been going by "Michel," changed his own name to "Andreas." It's the name most followers know him by, although more recent acolytes occasionally let a "Reyji" slip out.
    Even people who have known him for more than 25 years are sketchy on the details, but they say he was born Jaime Gomez, the son of a wealthy Venezuelan rancher. He came to the United States in search of Hollywood stardom and legally changed his name to Michel Rostand.
    The guru known as "Michel," left, in the 1968 film "Rosemary's Baby."
    His claim to fame, they say, was a nonspeaking role in a party scene in the Roman Polanski classic "Rosemary's Baby." He boasted of having danced with the Oakland Ballet. And former followers say he apparently starred in some gay adult films as well, but they were initially unaware of his porn career.
    Many of his followers met the guru at weekly yoga and meditation sessions.
    He led them on weekend outings to rivers and mountaintops and rocky beaches, where they frolicked, shed their hang-ups, meditated and got in touch with their inner children.
    The highlight of these sessions was an exercise they called shakti, a transfer of energy between master and student. At its most intense, a student experiences shakti as something akin to an LSD trip with flashing lights and vibrant colors -- and an overwhelming sense of bliss.
    And then there was "The Knowing," no less than making a direct connection with God. It wasn't given to all, but it's what kept people coming back.
    It was all too beautiful. Until, they say, it wasn't.

    Boundaries

    Will Allen says "Holy Hell" merely tells his personal story -- what happened to him, and to some of his friends during their years inside the Buddhafield. His story is intimate but one-sided.
    He is not an angry narrator; he stands back a bit from his own misadventure, gently wondering: How could this happen?
    That soft tone, along with hours and hours of insider footage, provide an alluring yet deeply disturbing view of life inside a cult.
    But Allen has never been satisfied with the closing scenes of his movie. They depict a trip to Oahu, and a surreptitiously videotaped encounter with the guru on a public beach. It isn't much of a confrontation, instead playing out like an awkward chance meeting with an ex.
    "Are you being a good boy?" Allen asks, and the guru pushes back, saying he is less concerned with "good" and more interested in what is "best." "Are you being your best boy?" Allen persists, and the guru just smiles cryptically and says, "I'm just being."
    That was at the outset of Allen's four-year film project. A lot has happened since then. Allen says he cried every day he worked on "Holy Hell."
    Hawaii is stirring up some emotions. It's the place Allen says the guru first initiated sex with him. And, years later, it was the place where he finally decided to leave the Buddhafield afer 22 years.
    Still, he doesn't hesitate when I ask him to help me find Reyji -- or people who know him -- so I can hear another side of the story. Allen agrees, partly because he's a nice, helpful guy. Perhaps, there's an even more powerful motivator for a filmmaker: curiosity.
    We drive the Lanikai Beach neighborhood, up narrow residential streets that wind into the hills from the beach. Allen rides shotgun and navigates, with some back-seat help from Chris Johnston, who appears in the film.
    We find the house where Allen filmed Reyji before, and neighbors say he's been there until very recently. The yard is overgrown, and a tall fence is posted with "No Trespassing" signs. Although Reyji must be well into his 70s by now, neighbors report that the guru still strolls down the street in his Speedo.
    We are trying to figure out the best way to approach people who are friendly with Reyji when Allen spots somebody he recognizes behind the wheel of a pickup. We turn around and follow the truck up the hill. It comes to rest at a carport in front of a hillside home with a killer view.
    'The benefits outweighed the craziness'
    CNN Films Holy Hell RON Clip 3_00003122

      JUST WATCHED

      'The benefits outweighed the craziness'

    MUST WATCH

    'The benefits outweighed the craziness' 01:07
    We chat for a bit with Alan, who won't give his last name and says he is no longer with the group.
    As he speaks, Alan stares into the distance with the bluest eyes I've ever seen. His pupils are tiny, his squint unwavering. This won't be the last intense, thousand-yard stare I'll witness over the weekend.
    A young woman with long, strawberry blond hair arrives and immediately lights into Will Allen. How dare he? How dare he film her and use her image without permission?
    They get into an animated conversation; it turns out that she can be seen in the crowd in one of the final scenes. Allen points out that she was filmed in public, and that to most viewers she's just a passing face in the crowd.
    She accuses him of "diminishing" her and once again they start arguing. This time, she lashes out: "You're interrupting. That's the fourth time you've interrupted me."
    And, speaking of boundaries ... "Aren't you on my property?"
    Allen says he'd been invited up to talk with Alan, who hadn't objected when I tagged along. Still, we take it as our cue to go.
    I leave them with my contact information; I'm very interested, I assure them, in their point of view.
    That night, at the first showing of the film, I encounter Petzold, there to represent Team Reyji. He promises to relay a message to the teacher. We decide to scale back our guru hunt and let things play out. No point in spooking him.
    Reyji has seen the film, and it saddens him, say those professing to be close to him. While dealing with Petzold, I hear from Martin Doluz. He is a yoga teacher who describes himself as a "good friend" in daily, face-to-face contact with the guru.
    The first half of the movie showed an experience similar to his own, he said. "Beautiful." But not the second half of the movie. That was nothing like his experience. And, like the blond woman in the driveway, he didn't appreciate being shown without his permission in a film about a cult.
    Doluz suggests I might actually get to meet the guru. But, by the end of a lengthy conversation that includes some deep eye-gazing on Doluz's part, I am advised not to change my travel plans. Instead, a couple of days later Doluz and Petzold each pass along an emailed statement from "Michel."
    "It is heartbreaking to see how history has been rewritten," the statement begins. " 'Holy Hell' is not a documentary, rather, it is a work of fiction designed to create drama, fear and persecution, knowing that is what sells."
    The statement continues, with a personal appeal to his former followers:
    "I am saddened by this attempt to obscure the message of universal love and spiritual awakening. 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."
    And he ends with a wish: "May all beings find peace."
    Supporters of the guru argue that he's harmless. Petzold says the former members featured in "Holy Hell" seem to suffer from "a bad case of buyer's remorse."
    Any sexual contact, the guru's supporters say, was consensual and came within the context of long-term relationships. It isn't happening now, they insist. Doluz says that "even if that should be offered," a disciple can always turn down a sexual advance.
    Allen and his friends, Goldstein and Johnston, argue that they were never interested in their guru sexually. They all were much younger than Michel/Andreas when they say he groomed them and turned them into his concubines. He was a creature of habit, and they say he reserved a day for each of them: Allen was Thursdays, Goldstein was Tuesdays and Saturdays, and Johnston, who is straight, always drew Mondays.
    They had been taught to bow in submission as a way to connect with God. That was how their guru groomed them, they say.
    But submission should never be confused with consent, they insist. How can you consent to sex with somebody who has power over you, who holds the key to your spiritual enlightenment?
    "How can you equate that to consent when the imbalance of power is so great?" Johnston asks.
    It is an argument similar to those made by survivors of clergy abuse scandals.
    Something else he says in the film seems to resonate with audiences, no matter whether they're at Sundance, or in Austin, Los Angeles or Honolulu. Cults are everywhere, Johnston states. "I guarantee you there's a cult right here in your town."
    The toll the Buddhafield took can be counted in years lost, relationships abandoned, opportunities missed.
    "My 20s? Gone!" says Johnston, who was known as "Ricky" and was said to be one of the guru's favorites. "My 30s -- gone!"
    "My 40s -- gone!" So rues another follower, Vera Chieffo.
    "My 50s -- gone!" Radhia Gleis picks up the count. An accomplished equestrienne, she gave up her career to follow the guru and eventually rose to become one of his top aides. She regrets not having children.
    In trying to find enlightenment, they lost themselves and the best years of their lives.

    Welcome to the 'Bootyfield'

    Sitting through two showings of "Holy Hell," it's easy to understand how anyone could be seduced into joining the Buddhafield. Many followers come from privileged backgrounds, which leads me to wonder whether the search for enlightenment is a first-world phenomenon. Are people who work three jobs to make ends meet too busy to worry about their inner selves?
    Many in the group seemed to have lapsed from the faith I was born into, Catholicism. A handful of others are former Bible Belt Protestants. With its positive message and promise of unconditional, universal love, the Buddhafield holds a special appeal to people seeking an alternative to all that guilt and fire and brimstone.
    These people are not flakes -- far from it. Many graduated from good colleges and were looking ahead to promising careers. They just had big questions. They wondered why they were here. What was the point? Were they missing something?
    Their adventure looked like great fun -- at first. What free-spirited 20-something hasn't thought about sharing space with a group of other attractive, like-minded people? It's like running away to join the circus.
    "There was this really hot guy. ..." That's all it took to hook Alessandra Burenin, who came to the festival from Austin, where she now sells real estate. The line always draws a laugh from film festival audiences. "The spiritual stuff came later," she says.
    Despite the guru's admonitions against wasting cosmic energy on sex, former members say the Buddhafield soon turned into what one jokingly called "the Bootyfield."
    Allen takes full advantage of his 22 years of footage to show the upside of Buddhafield life. The group dynamic was so good that it was easy to overlook the guru's eccentricities at first. So what if he uses a little too much guyliner? So what if a follower carries his portable chair around like a throne? So what if attendants called "bodyworkers" serve at his beck and call, providing on-the-spot massages?
    So what if he's dabbling so much with plastic surgery that he's starting to look a little scary.
    People in the Buddhafield didn't live in walled compounds or cut themselves off from the outside world. They rented houses and apartments, which they shared with other members in their circle of friends. And they had day jobs.
    But there were no children, and no pets. Women who got pregnant, according to former followers, were told to have abortions because the teacher instructs them that children and personal enlightenment didn't mix.
    By 2006, when holy hell finally broke loose inside the group, the Buddhafield's intricate basket-weaving of interpersonal relationships sustained some followers even as they abandoned their master. But the breakup was messy.
    Just like the breakup of a real family.

    An email leads to 'the Big Ugly'

    The end of the Buddhafield as Allen and the others knew it began with an email. The group had been in Austin about a decade when a member announced he was done for good. And he was letting everybody know why: the pervasive psychological and sexual abuse he'd witnessed.
    He accused the guru of using hypnotherapy techniques to plant suggestions during the $50 weekly "cleansing sessions" all members of the Buddhafield underwent. And he accused him of improper sexual relationships with some of his closest male followers.
    "He used the sex with his disciples as a spiritual gift, spiritual growth, and a path to further enlightenment," said the email, which Allen showed me. "He manipulated people to feel that if they didn't take this sexual step, they weren't devoted to God and his work. His ability to control people's psyches was unsurpassed," the email continued.
    Followers began to talk among themselves, and that's when Allen, Goldstein and Johnston say they first learned that their leader had been manipulating all of them for years. It would take just awhile longer for each of them to see it as sexual abuse.
    Michel moved his followers to Austin, Texas, in the early '90s. In an email, he called Allen's documentary "a work of fiction."
    "He has, in fact, broken my heart," the ex-follower's email continued. "I loved him as much or more than many of you. I was close to him... very close. When I returned to the Buddhafield 3 years ago it was very apparent to me that things had changed radically."
    The master's message no longer was about connecting with God. It was all about the master. "The songs ceased to be about God anymore, and were all about master. The events, home-made movies, ballets, as well as the vibrations inside of us, were no longer about God ... they were about master. Instead of 'connecting to God's love,' it was 'connect to my love'... This says it all."
    Johnston left the group in Austin. Allen held on a little while longer, working to relocate Andreas to Hawaii with the idea that he'd no longer hold himself out as a master or seek out followers.
    The Buddhafield broke into warring factions -- "the Big Ugly," they called the breakup -- and eventually dissolved. The house was sold, and Gleis got her money back.
    But Gleis was done, too. In the movie, she looks into Allen's eyes and angry tears well in her eyes. She says that though she knew him for 25 years, she had no idea about the dark secrets he'd been keeping. If she had, she says, she would have done something about it much sooner. She weeps as she describes how it felt to be demonized and ostracized by people she'd known for decades.

    The box

    "Did you tell her about the box, Will?"
    Gleis is insistent that I hear about the box as we weave through a throng of tourist traffic. We're on our way to the Duke Hotel, one of the island's oldest and most elegant, for a round of fancy umbrella drinks. Yes, former members of the Buddhafield drink. And eat. And sing karaoke.
    The mood turns somber as this Peter Pan of a tour guide speaks of his own abuse. For him, it was utterly degrading.
    "I would have to get ready for sex with him. You guys were all at satsang, singing," Allen says, referring to one of the group's regular spiritual gatherings.
    "I would come over, and he would do his ritual with me," he says. "He was sitting in a chair, and I was kneeling in front of him. There was no intimacy; there was no real love. People say we were in some sort of relationship? There was no relationship."
    The guru would pleasure himself to pornography, he says, and then "I would come in and be the finishing person."
    He recalls the next part of his story slowly, as if reliving the pain as he speaks.
    "He'd go, 'OK, it's time to go get the box,' " Allen says. "He was a short man, and I'm a tall man. So, he'd be, 'Go get the box!' "
    Allen says he would try to distract himself.
    "As he was doing it to me, I'd just go, 'It's almost over. It's almost over.' And as soon as it was over, I'd go, 'OK, you don't have to think about this for a whole other week.' And so, for the next few days everything would be great. I'd have my community. We'd never talk about it. And then it would be Tuesday again, and I'd get nervous. And Wednesday I'd be, 'Oh my God, tomorrow's the night.' And Thursday I'd be panicking. But then I'd go, 'I made it, I don't have to worry about it for another week.' And that went on for 4½ years."
    "I didn't register it as abuse," he explains. "I just thought, 'It's my problem. Why am I not surrendered?' I just didn't ever know what was happening to me. And then I had to love him like he was my guru. I had to honor and respect him as my guru, and that's when I started hating him. I was PTSD without even knowing it."
    "So romantic," he adds, sarcasm dripping from his voice.

    A day at the beach

    I am amazed at how free of anger and bitterness Allen and his friends are. Whatever resentment and ill will they once felt seem to have vanished. Though their experiences might have been dark, there is a unique lightness about each of them. They are happy. Not everything about their Buddhafield experience was negative.
    It's as though they've grabbed hold of some sort of fountain of youth. As Gleis says, "I think we held up pretty well."
    Something takes hold of these former cult members when they are together. They even speak differently. Allen, for example, stops rushing about long enough to look me in the eye. "I'm communicating with you," he blurts out.
    Since when were you not?
    At other times, when they are all speaking at once, I find myself waiting for someone to referee; they're like children who don't know how to wait their turn. At different times I want to pass each one of them the "talking pillow."
    We're still waiting to hear back from the guru, although the prospects of actually meeting him grow dimmer by the minute as my departure time nears. So I decide to follow the group as they set out on some good, old-fashioned island fun, Buddhafield-style.
    Life inside the Buddhafield took on some of the widely accepted hallmarks of a cult.
    I've noticed over the weekend how these Buddhafield friends share an easy, deep connection. It reminds me of a reunion of college roommates or members of a championship team. Or maybe my first newspaper, since journalism is the cult I chose to squander my youth on.
    The Buddhafield experience is so totally "The Big Chill," and who doesn't want some of that? I want to know more about this Peter Pan lifestyle and these people who feel free to climb mountains and dive into volcanic mud pits and bodysurf the big waves -- because they feel like it. I want to know what the next adventure will be.
    A plan is hatched to find a beach, the kind where waves curl over a long strip of sand. We set out, packing an SUV and a Prius full of middle-aged children. We push past Diamond Head, toward the windward side of the island, finally settling on Sandy Beach, which is crowded with surfers and boogie boarders.
    The talk in the car is easy, even if I don't have much to contribute to conversations that begin with, "Remember when we had that three-way with. ..." (Allen says he wasn't there.)
    Storm clouds are building, and the ocean is blue and green and white, but the waves are powerful, breaking forcefully right on top of the sand. Eventually, I catch one, perfectly. I feel my body drop from the top of the wave, sliding along the glassy inner curve. Then comes the white explosion, and I fully expect to be ground into the sand.
    But, kowabunga! I am pushed out ahead of the roiling foam and ride into shore.
    Once again, I am 10 years old, and I've just caught the perfect wave.