American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
"Holy Hell," a documentary by Will Allen, is an account of an American religious cult as told by a filmmaker who was right in the middle of it in the 80s, and whose skills were put in service of glorifying it. Much of it consists of video footage generated by Allen when he was a member of the Buddhafield, a homegrown religion led by a man named Michel.
Imagine you'd purchased a ticket to an evening with a filmmaker, during which he played some of the video footage he created during his time in a cult, and talked about the circumstances and about his overall experience. That's fine insofar as it goes—it might even be a fun (though perhaps slightly disturbing) night out—but it doesn't really add up to a compelling nonfiction feature, a format that requires some shape, a narrative spine, and a point beyond "here is this strange thing that happened to me once."
Something seems off from the opening moments of the movie, which juxtapose images of Allen's stint as Buddhafield's house director with footage from his childhood as a precocious Steven Spielberg-wannabe, shooting low budget knockoffs of blockbusters like "Jaws" with a Super 8mm camera. (I wouldn't have minded seeing some of those films at length, honestly; they look utterly charming.) It feels a bit too much like a clip reel, advertising Allen as a filmmaker and a nice person.
He talks about coming of age as a gay man and how his mother failed to support him, and then suddenly we skip ahead and he's in the cult. We don't get much sense of how he ended up there, exactly—I mean the dramatic arc of it, the line you can trace from childhood to that moment. Nor are we given enough information and insight to understand what the cult is like on a day-to-day level—what its rules and beliefs are, what the experience of life is like there. Mostly we're looking at footage of people experiencing some sort of rapture in nature. It could be an evangelical Christian group where hands are laid on the body; it could be a bunch of post-hippies tripping somewhere; it's all rather fuzzy. So is Michel, though as the story unfolds we at least get a strong feeling of of how petty, vindictive and controlling he was. (Cult leaders aren't generally known as well-adjusted people.)
At the ripe age of 89, Oscar can still be a notoriously picky fellow when it comes to what constitutes a contender fo...