Review: ‘Holy Hell’

Hot Docs 2016

3 mins read

Holy Hell
(USA, 105 min.)
Dir. Will Allen
Programme: Command + Control (International Premiere)


Holy Hell is a conundrum. It’s a flawed, at times frustrating, documentary that feels as if it’s unable to really settle on the tale it’s trying to tell. It’s commonplace for this to occur when the filmmaker is too close to the subject. In this case, it’s made all the more challenging because the subject, in many ways, is the doc-maker himself.

Will Allen spent two decades as the in-house filmmaker for a group calling themselves The Buddhafield. What started out as a Park City, Colorado group of hippies and wanderers soon evolved into nothing short of a cult. Holy Hell provides exceptional insight into the ways in which small decisions to work within the community at the behest of a benevolent leader soon devolve into a kind of Guru worship that’s both destructive and highly addictive.

Where Allen’s film slips is in his awkward grand reveals, as if the audience isn’t way ahead of the narrative when it takes its more overt dark turns. For Allen it seems as if he can’t really believe this is what transpired, where from outside the bubble, this type of sadistic/masochistic symbiosis seems to lead to some obvious, if awful, consequences.

As members of the group manage to escape, Allen traces their path, but he never seems able to truly get to the heart of what made them give up their self-preservation for as long as they did, nor is he capable of getting his subjects to come to terms with the fact that many simply replaced one form of subservience with another. Still, these intensely provocative questions, while mostly unanswered within the film, echo through the viewer’s mind. The subject matter is so intoxicating, the footage unique and powerful, that even the flaws in this documentary can’t erode the power of the stories and fascinating characters presented in Holy Hell.

Holy Hell screens:
-Tuesday, May 3 at TIFF Bell Lightbox at 10:00 AM
-Friday, May 6 at Hart House at 7:00 PM

Please visit the POV Hot Docs hub for more coverage on this year’s festival.

Hot Docs runs April 28 – May 8. Visit for more information.


Courtesy of Hot Docs

Jason Gorber is a film journalist and member of the Toronto Film Critics Association. He is the Managing Editor/Chief Critic at and a regular contributor for POV Magazine, and CBC Radio. His has written for Slashfilm, Esquire, The Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Screen Anarchy, HighDefDigest, Birth.Movies.Death, IndieWire and more. He has appeared on CTV NewsChannel, CP24, and many other broadcasters. He has been a jury member at the Reykjavik International Film Festival, Calgary Underground Film Festival, RiverRun Film Festival, TIFF Canada's Top 10, Reel Asian and Fantasia's New Flesh Award. Jason has been a Tomatometer-approved critic for over 20 years.

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