Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Source Family (2012)

WHO: Co-directed by Jodi Wille and Maria Demopoulos.

WHAT: Want to spend time in a vegetarian, psychedelic, mystical personality cult? No? How about just 98 minutes? This documentary about a Los Angeles religious community active in the early 1970s is well worth your time if you have any interest in California counterculture of that era. The Source Family, sometimes known as the Aquarians, was a commune of followers of a World War II vet named Jim Baker, who opened several popular health food restaurants, the last of which, The Source, was frequented by the likes of Goldie Hawn and Steve McQueen, and even made cinematic appearances in Hollywood films like Alex in Wonderland and Annie Hall (the doc provides relevant clips).

Inspired by the Kundalini Yoga teachings of Yogi Bhajan, Baker changed his name to "Father Yod" and selected a 19-year old named Robin to become "Mother Ah-Om" to help him set a new religion based on "the best" of all existing ones. 140 youngsters were drawn to his charismatic presence and came to live on his compound, donate their savings, work in his restaurant, and travel with him down a spiritual path involving the usual sex, drugs and rock and roll, but that ultimately took some bizarre turns. Though nothing as massively tragic as what's depicted in Oakland filmmaker Stanley Nelson's Jonestown: the Life and Death of Peoples Temple; the Source Family may have some superficial connections to Peoples Temple in that both attracted seekers trained by the 1960s political climate to distrust traditional father figures even if they still craved a kind of paternal authority, but it's clear that they were not very similar in some fundamental ways.

Made up mostly of interviews with former Source Family members, as well as the personal archive of Isis Aquarian, the now-septugenarien "family historian and temple keeper", The Source Family is no formal ground-breaker. It has a "generally favorable" rating on Metacritic, which seems fair enough. But I notice that the two most unfavorable reviews (neither outright pans) fault the film for not including more of an attempt to place The Source Family into the social and religious context of its time. It's true that directors Wille and Demopoulos largely avoid panning out to a view of the forest, preferring to examine the story at tree-level, almost as if the audience is experiencing the history of the movement from the perspective of someone who was a part of it at the time. Writer Erik Davis and a few other outsiders do provide a bit of analysis and context, mostly their commentary revolves around the musical recordings Father Yod and his followers published, which we also hear samples of throughout the soundtrack, and which now fetch pretty prices in psychedelic record collecting circles.

But though this approach meant that the film took a little bit of time to truly blossom into a compelling story, it also feels respectful of the audience, which is nonetheless given plenty of information and allowed to make up its own mind about went on in Father Yod's group (I know I'm being vague, but I don't want to give away any of the most unexpected revelations. If you want to know more than even the film tells you about Father Yod and his legacy, this article and the currently-active comment thread below might do the trick. But it may make a viewing of The Source Family less enjoyable.)

WHERE/WHEN: Tonight only at the New Parkway at 7:00.

WHY: Lots of documentaries at The New Parkway this week. This plays this as part of its weekly Doc Night held each Tuesday. The venue will also host a documentary tomorrow night: After Innocence, sponsored by the ACLU and screening for free. Friday through Sunday, it joins the Roxie in hosting SF Indie's Doc Fest. And Monday it shows Crossing The Line, about a US Army defector now living in North Korea.

HOW: Digital projection, as always at the New Parkway.

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