Inside the world of a cult

Updated 1:07 PM ET, Thu September 1, 2016
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Filmmaker Will Allen spent decades documenting Michel, a charismatic guru who leads a sect called Buddhafield. Allen's film "Holy Hell" -- airing Thursday, September 1, on CNN -- reveals the darker side to what many followers thought was utopia but now believe is a cult. These portraits of Michel, taken by Allen, offer a rare glimpse into the organization and its leader. WRA Productions, LLC
Buddhafield began in West Hollywood, California, in the 1980s. Michel formed the close-knit sect with the promise that his followers could aspire to an artistic, utopian, communal life. WRA Productions, LLC
At a "Knowing" retreat, Michel said he would lead Buddhafield members to meet God directly, but only if he determined they were ready. WRA Productions, LLC
Michel boasted of having once danced with the Oakland Ballet. He had his followers practice and perform ballet at the Buddhafield compound. The members would put on elaborate performances -- for themselves only. WRA Productions, LLC
This and many of the other Photoshopped images of Michel were featured in a calendar that "Holy Hell" filmmaker Allen created for the spiritual leader. WRA Productions, LLC
"He spoke as if he had gone into the cosmos, and come back, and was here to tell us about it and take us there," Allen said. WRA Productions, LLC
Allen, pictured here, spent 22 years as Michel's assistant, documenting life inside Buddhafield. WRA Productions, LLC
In the early 1990s, Michel moved his followers to Austin, Texas, and changed his name after the Cult Awareness Network reportedly raised concerns. WRA Productions, LLC
Michel also gave his followers new names to help them create a new way of seeing themselves, according to the film. Allen said he was given the name "Francesco." WRA Productions, LLC
Michel appears inside the gardens of Buddhafield's compound in Austin. WRA Productions, LLC
In this image, Allen told Vanity Fair that Michel represents the Hindu god Hanuman, a monkey. "This is how I always imagined that story would look," Allen explained to the publication. "When the monkey tore his chest open, inside it was only light. I wanted to get Michel in a similar position: chest open, emanating that light." WRA Productions, LLC
Another image of Michel appearing as a Hindu god. Allen told Vanity Fair that while Michel probably thought of himself as God, he told his followers that God exists inside everyone. WRA Productions, LLC
Gradually, several Buddhafield members -- including filmmaker Allen -- left after accusing Michel of emotional manipulation and even sexual abuse. In an email, Michel called Allen's documentary "a work of fiction." WRA Productions, LLC