SXSW ’12 Review: Jodi Wille and Maria Demopoulos’ “The Source” Goes Beyond Cult Appeal

A by-the-book account of a Los Angeles-based '70s cult is transcended by their unbelievable story in this extraordinarily detailed documentary....Read More

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All our SXSW 2012 coverage can be found here.

Since the elusive question of why will inevitably hang over a film like “The Source,” which is about the cult of the same name that sprung up in the heart of Hollywood during the 1970s, it’s for the best that filmmakers Jodi Wille and Maria Demopoulos are more focused on the question of who.

After all, the former was answered rather handily, if not concretely, by the lines that wrapped around every venue the documentary played at SXSW as the same curiosity about the collective that likely drew many into the fold clearly endures to this day. But while the personal stories collected by co-directors Jodi Wille and Maria Demopoulos don’t necessarily demystify the actual lure of The Source, they form a perfect mix of ingredients for an exceptionally compelling documentary about the short-lived cult that thrived from 1970 through 1975.

Fitting for the strange but true nature of whole proceedings, the story that seems most crucial to the film is not the incredible tale of Father Yod, the God-like leader who grew his graying beard out after leaving behind a previous life as a Judo champion and bank robber named Jim Baker, but rather that of Charlene Peters, the fiancée of rock photographer Ron Raffaelli who literally went into The Source’s pioneering vegetarian restaurant on the Sunset Strip looking for Jesus – statues, that is, for a photo shoot – and came out as Isis Aquarian, a member of Yod’s flock. Like so many in the film, she can hardly explain why she was so transfixed by Yod and his lifestyle, though the appeal of a well-funded, well-stocked commune clearly held its allure.

Isis is similarly vague on why she started recording nearly everything that happened on The Source’s palatial compound in the Hollywood Hills, yet it’s the thousands of photographs, hundreds of scratchy 16mm home films and countless recordings of the group’s music which form the experience of actually being in Father Yod’s midst. It isn’t surprising to learn that previous to the film, Wille edited an oral history of The Source in book form, accounting for both its vast well of research and its reluctance to stray from a traditional talking head format of former members sharing their experiences intercut with archival materials.

However, the tame presentation is almost by necessity since with the sheer number of members onhand, almost all with the Aquarian surname, the testimony alone paints a wild and diverse portrait of The Source. There seems to be little to no regret amongst those interviewed, with some things such as a blood oath being acknowledged but “too soon” to be discussed even decades later, leaving room to believe a harsher point of view may be out there. Still, a deep ambivalence pervades “The Source” as members with names like Sunflower, Zinaru and Magus recall the cult’s roots stemming from serving as the staff at the restaurant frequented by John Lennon and Goldie Hawn that’s success paid for its leader to fulfill his ambitions for a lifestyle of meditation and freedom to do “anything you want in life so long as it’s kind.”

Of course, The Source was ultimately killed by “kindness,” its utopian ideal embraced in a place populated by creative misfits until the cult itself adopted a star system where Father Yod bought into his own hype, a moment in the film that’s perfectly captured by a picture of Yod nude and gluttonous amongst a harem of his female believers/concubines. To their great credit, Wille and Demopoulos don’t share the decadence of Yod in telling The Source’s story, letting it unfold naturally and leading ultimately to a fascinating denouement in which it shows how the survivors of The Source reintegrated into society with the memory of their experience either a barrier or a facilitator towards their next phase of life. Regardless, it’s an experience they can’t leave behind and thanks to their   clear-eyed recollections, neither can anyone who watches “The Source.”    

"The Source" does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will next play at the San Francisco Film Festival on April 22nd, 27th and 29th.

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