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Film: The Source Family
Director: Jodi Wille, Maria Demopoulos
Streaming On: Netflix, Hulu Plus
Primary Focus of Study: The Source Family and its leader, “Father Yod”
Secondary Focuses Of Study: Cults, group psychology, California in the 1970s
California in the late 1960s and early 1970s was a fertile breeding ground for cults. It was as if the entire state shook with a profound spiritual yearning that could only be satisfied by the eccentric teachings of Scientology’s L. Ron Hubbard or EST’s Werner Erhard or Charles Manson or any number of eccentric gurus professing to know the meaning of life. This was the world that spawned the Source Family, a cult built around the teachings of Jim Baker, a mountain of a man who reinvented himself as “Father Yod,” the proprietor of Los Angeles’ trendiest and most talked-about health-food restaurant. Father Yod leveraged the success of his restaurant into a commune called The Source Family filled with impossibly beautiful, suggestible young people overflowing with positivity and good vibes.
The Source Family began on a positive note, with Yod serving as the eccentric father and leader of a group devoted to healthy living and creating a better world. With his white beard and fiery eyes, Father Yod certainly looked the part of an Old Testament prophet delivering profound truths from a mountaintop. But while Father Yod might have looked like Moses, he behaved like a cross between a beat poet, an abrasive stand-up comedian in the Lenny Bruce mold, and a free-jazz hep cat who led a psychedelic band made up of Source Family members called Ya Ho Wa 13, who released albums of spontaneously composed psychedelic freak-outs built around Father Yod’s stream-of-consciousness rambling.
Having read extensively about cults and seen a lot of documentaries about them, it sometimes feels like there’s really just one cult with a thousand different names and ideologies. All follow an arc that proves depressingly predictable. The power the Source Family gave Father Yod had a profoundly corrupting influence. At a certain point, the fiftysomething guru decided to re-define marriage as a bond shared by himself and anyone he wanted to have sex with, the younger the better. So Father Yod traded in his gorgeous, widely adored 19-year-old wife in exchange for being married to 14 women at the same time, some of them teens. Then Father Yod declared himself God, and in a Jim Jones-like turn of events, decided to move his flock from its home base in Los Angeles to Hawaii, where matters went from bad to worse. The move to Hawaii led to an endgame that concluded with Father Yod perishing in a hang-gliding accident, a death fitting a life so strange and melodramatic.
Stylistically, The Source Family is a standard-issue talking-heads documentary, with the suspiciously well-preserved alumni of The Source Family talking about their experiences with the cult and with Father Yod with a pronounced lack of bitterness that I found surprising and strangely inspiring. They’re able to contextualize their experiences with Yod as an important step in their personal and spiritual journey, to find the positive in what many would consider an overwhelmingly negative, even traumatic experience.
The flame of hope and idealism that defined The Source Family at its best (you know, before it kind of became a creepy sex cult) is still alive in these bright-eyed, passionate spiritual seekers, and The Source Family is surprisingly upbeat and positive for a documentary about a cult led by a manipulative charlatan with a God complex that could only be satiated by being worshiped and sexually satisfied by his own private harem. It’s pretty much exactly what I hoped it would be: a solid primer on a weird little slice of inveterately 1970s weirdness, and a trippy, psychedelic look at a larger-than-life (in every conceivable way) figure who professed to be a God but was ultimately much too human.
Educational value: Meets expectations
Entertainment value: Meets expectations