My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.
Jodie Wille and Maria Demopoulous discuss their recent documentary on The Source Family, a past zeitgeist of trust, and the popular perception of cultists and communes.
The Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum
congratulates BOMB Gala honorees
James Keith Brown
and Eric G. Diefenbach
Jodie Wille and Maria Demopoulous’s new documentary on the Source Family—an LA-based cult, psych rock group, and health food restaurant operation—offers an often underrepresented picture of radical living in mid-century America. The film follows the trajectory of the Family and it’s charismatic leader, Father Yod, highlighting the group’s practices—from free love and white magic to yoga and health food—while maintaining a more objective criticism of the issues within the community. By drawing from the successes and failures of this experiment in alternative living as a sort of case study, Wille and Demopoulos ultimately celebrate the vivacity, creativity and purpose of the Family’s lifestyle, leaving the viewer with a much more rounded view of the cults and communes of the 1960s.
Jonathan Andrews The first thing I wanted to know was how you guys got exposed to the Source Family.
Jodie Wille The first time I ever got exposed to them was in 1999, when a friend had showed me this deluxe box set of Source Family music that was put out by Captain Trip Records, which is this Japanese psychedelic label. I was just shocked, because I had been researching fringe religious groups and cults for, like, 20 years, and I’d never heard anything about them. I saw the album covers, which blew my mind, as well as photographs of the Family, but it was all done in Japanese so I couldn’t read anything about it and there was nothing online anywhere! So for about five years that just sat around in the back of my brain.
But one day my ex-husband Adam Parfrey had come home with this student film he found about the Source Family that had very limited release through Amoeba Records. I was very excited to see something! It was definitely a student film, but when we saw the interviews with the Family members, I was just blown away by how articulate and charming the people were. I just didn’t expect that, that level of self-awareness. I saw that there was a Ya Ho Wa/Source Family website, and contacted them to see if they would be interested in publishing a book with one of my companies, Process Media.
Isis Aquarian [associate producer on the film and an original Source Family member] wrote me back right away to say, “That’s so funny your contacting us now; I’ve been working on this book with my brother Electricity and we just finished it.” So we worked to expand and rework it—that was how I first got to find out about the Family and first got to meet them.
When Isis showed me the archive, complete with the Family home movies, I realized it could be an incredible documentary, Maria had been immersed in it, and I really respected her sensibility and felt like we had a lot in common in terms of what we appreciate. Once Maria was on board, we really started making it in earnest. That’s when the magic really, really started happening.
Maria Demopoulos Thanks Jodie. (laughter)
JA Had you both done documentary work before? Maria had done a film before this, what was that about?
MD It was called Glamazon: A Different Kind of Girl and was shot on film in Appalachia. It was about a transsexual burlesque dancer from the ’40s, who left to join the circus at the age of 14 from a coal mining town and returned as a she-male at the age of 52. She was, you know, basically being reunited with her childhood sweetheart, a lot of her family members, etc.
JW This is my first feature documentary, but I’ve documented a lot of outsider artists for the last 20 years with film and photographs. Actually, I was documenting this apocalyptic immortality cult called the Universal World Church about ten years ago, and directed a Christmas Special for them—
(laughter) I just thought it would be so much cooler to do their Christmas Special than to do a documentary, so we just shot it and it was one of the best things I’ve ever done. The books that I do through Process Media—I work with these incredible amateur historians who amass these bodies of work that document our culture in different ways, and then I collaborate with them to make books. That’s what I did with Isis, but with Isis there was just so much more there that we could turn into the film.
JA It really seemed that Isis played a super-important part of this film, if just for the fact that she contributed so much raw footage!
MD Absolutely. Even though Jodie and I had worked on the book together and Jodie had met with all the Family members, Isis was digging deeper, thinking of celebrities who frequented the Source Restaurant, for example. She would have these anecdotes that would turn into leads and she would help us find these people. She was amazing!
JW Yeah, she earned her associate producer title for sure! But what I’d really like to emphasize is that these documentarians, people like Isis—they exist in our culture, and you’re lucky if you can find them. To me, just knowing her, she has the true spirit of the documentarian; wherever we go she’s taking pictures, she’s always recording everything, far more than I am!
JA One thing I was impressed with was the fact that you both managed to find so many former members of the group, which was so mind blowing to me—it really seemed like some of them had just gone off in the hinterlands somewhere.
JW Well, once you have an experience like the Source Family, it’s kind of hard to fit in regular society again—it just seems like such a drag! (laughter)
A lot of the family members forged truly unique paths afterwards. When I first encountered the material, all I could think of was the whole victim-perpetrator paradigm; that they must be “mindless” or brainwashed. But the more I got to know them over the years through doing the book, I thought, “Wow, these are some of the most self-aware, independent-minded people I’ve ever met.”
It’s clear though that it wasn’t this way for everyone; Robin was devastated by the Family, and it was hard for some members to integrate back into society after the Family broke up. But thirty years later, it’s just amazing how many of them are at a place in their lives where they’re just wonderful people to be around—really loving and positive, and holding that experience as the most important of their lives. It just shaped who they are.
JA It seemed really interesting that everybody went in such different directions afterwards, but also when they talked about their experiences—I imagined when listening to these people coming out of this intense cult experience that more of them would be jaded about the whole thing. Yet for most of them they perceived it as such a positive thing in their lives; that was really interesting to hear.
JW One of the most important things in making this film was blowing this myth out of the water— that all of these social experiments were failures, and that all these spiritual groups were dangerous cults. I’ve interviewed people from a number of different cults, communes, whatever you want to call them—people from the Process Church of the Final Judgment, the Love Israel Family, Stephen Gaskin’s Farm, etc. And for so many of those people, the ability to live this experiment directly, and to live it with a certain spirit of freedom and idealism rejecting consumerism, industrialization, and generally being very courageous, they were remaking the world as we know it.
When I was growing up, the word cult was associated with the image of Manson and Jonestown—I feel like our society has been brainwashed by corporate culture and media to believe that these experiments were all worthless, when in fact they gave birth to some of the greatest visionaries of our time. Most of Silicon Valley, many of those people—they were experimenting like this. Just look at Steve Jobs! (laughter) He had a guru, he was living on a commune, and he was one of those people that have fundamentally affected the everyday. I feel that’s part of these people living in these cultural incubators, and focusing on something greater than themselves.
JW Yeah, they contributed to and were visible in their community—the Source Restaurant was this huge energy center that all these amazing artists, filmmakers and musicians went to.
MD Also, a lot of people judge the success of these groups by how long they’re in existence, and will say, “Oh, they failed because they only existed for five years, etc.” But the point is they’re not meant to go on forever and ever! It was a radical social experiment that they all signed up to do, and at a certain point it just ended. It was meant to be over. The Source Family, like many of these groups—their lifespan was only a certain amount of time.
JW To me, I feel the goal of so many of these groups was personal and ultimately cultural transformation. Even if they believed in their heart of hearts that they’re going to be in this utopian experiment forever, it doesn’t mean that it’s a failure if it doesn’t last, because the beauty is they’re able to walk away transformed. And many of them were, according to the interviews we’ve done with people.
JA Your film seems to be making a strong social and political point that these groups and communities do serve a function.People drew a lot of positive stuff out of these experiences.
JW I’m interested in subcultures that regenerate the larger culture, and that regenerative aspect of these communes and cults was unlike anything we’ve seen for decades—not since the communes of the ’30s that sprung up during the Great Depression or the radical spiritual groups and communes back in the 1840s.
It’s a personal obsession to just get the conversation going so people can recognize the really potent qualities of these movements. It’s easy for an outsider to look at this and say, “Oh, Father Yod was a con man, he preached for people to be kind but he wasn’t kind himself.” But according to all the Family members we interviewed, he really was kind, even if he was obsessed with sex (clearly) and really liked young ladies. (laughter)
Even if members of the Source Family were not necessarily kind to each other all the time and did it just for him, the Family taught an ethos of healthy living, of doing things mindfully, truthfully, and with love. That’s one thing I miss in our current culture that was so prominent in the ’60s and ’70s, that ethics were really important; the idea of being kind to another person was really important, and it was so successful that you could just meet people and you saw that if they had long hair, they would share an ethos that you had, and there would be an instant trust. That’s one of the saddest things about our current culture, that there is no focus on that trust on a mass level yet.
MD And now is such a great time for this film to come out. After coming out of the decadent ‘80s, Reagan, and our conservative culture, then going into the ’90s which were all about irony and detachment, now is ripe for earnestness, sincerity and hopefulness. It seems with everything that is happening with the financial collapse and a renewed interest and urgency in environmental issues, this is a story that is very relevant today.
JA I can understand with this kind of perspective why you might choose to focus on them as opposed to the many other groups springing up that period, during the early-’70s.
MD Well, the reason we would choose this particular group is the archives—they so intimately recorded every aspect of their lives. It just makes sense to only focus on them and that context.
Also, in terms of LA culture and history, I grew up here and never heard this story before. We felt like we were unearthing this pocket of Los Angeles history that nobody’s really known about. Really, it becomes this thing where we’re connecting the dots of the Laurel Canyon musicians; there’s Donald Sutherland, Paul Mazursky and all these Hollywood luminaries; there’s Bud Cort from Harold and Maude who was a member of the Source Family. All roads end and cross at the Source Restaurant!
JW That’s another thing that I have to say has been so much fun doing this work! I’ve always been interested in radical spirituality, and always interested in how taboo spirituality became in the ’80s and ’90s, really at odds with youth culture. Jesus was groovy in the ’70s—just think of Jesus Christ, Superstar—just hugely successful with all of these Jesus freaks and communes. But once he got hijacked by the Christian right, he became the most uncool thing ever.
JA If you felt there was an ultimate message the Source Family experiment had to teach us, what would you say it is?
JW I would say that you are a spiritual being having a human experience, and that you are free; that you have choices in life, that you’re a liberated human being, you don’t have to do what other people tell you to do. You can live life on your own terms in your own fashion and do it deeply.
MD I absolutely concur. To me the message of the Source Family is to live life on your own terms and to live exuberantly. Every day for them was a roller coaster, they were just going for it. They lived in this heightened reality, where Father Yod would say, “We’re doing this today,” and they would do it! They would do it in the middle of Hollywood and very publicly, and lived fearlessly.
For more on the Wille and Demopoulous’s film, including upcoming screenings, visit to the film’s website.
Jonathan Andrews is a Brooklyn-based writer and film critic.
My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.