When “it seemed like a good idea at the time” hooks up with “join us”-type faith, the world ends up with another juicy bite of quasi-religious cult history. If we’re lucky, it takes us to the freakiest outskirts of radical utopian adventure and glittery illumination, stopping short of tragedy and ruin—drinking Kool-Aid or wearing Nikes to your deathbed are kind of a bummer. Once you believe you’re “specially chosen” for a certain task or destiny, you’re kind of in the danger zone, but the Source Family, a Los Angeles-based community in the late 1960s and early 70s managed to steer clear of the seriously dark stuff. Centered around self-styled Western guru Father Yod, the Source Family gave us outrageously spaced-out drama, redeeming itself time and time again once it got way too nuts and even a little bit gross. We don’t want to ruin the story, because it’s a good one, and it’s told pretty thoroughly by The Source, a documentary that just premiered this week at SXSW.
In The Source we see an an older man go through several bouts of building and then nearly snuffing out his ego as if his life's journey were an experiment in metaphysical auto-erotic asphyxiation. The guy was part guru, part father, part pimp, and he sought some way to unify people as they explored their psyches to the absolute threshold of potential spiritual enlightenment. Whether this is through food or drugs or music or meditation or sleeping with 13 women at once, many of whom are teenagers, or moving to Hawaii and spending all your money on a helicopter and a boat and nothing else… well, who’s to judge what the soul truly needs to learn certain valuable lessons? The documentary explores how possession divides on all fronts, from material to emotional to sexual to spiritual, where freedom becomes infidelity. We see who benefits from a central figure telling acolytes “you can do whatever you want, as long as you’re kind,” from where power originates, and how we give it away. How for some, vacancy is a requirement for spirituality, while the ability to stay present is absolutely key for others. And especially how fucking rad and out of control the early 70s were in Los Angeles. Yep, there’s a lot going on in this documentary. We talked about it with Jodi Wille, who co-directed the film with Maria Demopoulos, and in 2007 also published The Source: The Untold Story of Father Yod, Ya Ho Wha 13 and The Source Family.
VICE: Hi Jodi, how’s it going? What’s been the response to the initial screenings?
Jodi Wille: The premiere on Sunday in a 600-capacity theater sold out with people sitting in the aisles. The screening on Wednesday sold out with a line of people around the block. Tuesday’s performance was incredible—a number of Austin indie musicians, from noise to synth pop players got together and performed their renditions of The Source Family chants and songs. It was what I could only describe as cosmic trance music. The response overall has been wild—the feedback from random people and the Source Family members who were there was the most exciting.
Ooh, what did Source Family members have to say?
They all said it wasn't what they expected and they loved it, that they thought it was very well balanced. They're OK with the warts-and-all portrayals of Yod because they said it feels honest, and because the good things about him were portrayed as well. Wave said she forgot how beautiful they were. Electricity and Magus said watching it brought them to tears a number of times—definitely an intense experience for them to see themselves, Yod, and the family in home movies, pictures and audio, for the first time in 35 years.
Has Robin, Father Yod’s first Source Family wife, seen it?
Not yet. But I can't wait till she does. She's never felt her voice was heard in the family, and now she's definitely being heard.
I think you did a great job of showing the cyclical nature of accumulated (and bestowed) power. Even though to me it was clearly paternal abuse of power, I feel you mostly kept this discussion gender neutral… which must've taken some restraint.
There were complex power dynamics going on. Yod's been described to me as sort of a benevolent dictator. But when he formed his council of 13 women (his wives) in the Father House days, he became less involved in running the family, and his women mostly took over. So then it became a matriarchy with him in a more passive role, but still in charge when he wanted to be. This was too complex to explain in the film, and we felt OK leaving it out, because ultimately, the power went both ways with the genders.
Is there personal intrigue with The Source Family? You're pretty involved with esoteric Los Angeles.
When I first started working with Isis Aquarian on the book in 2006, I began experiencing all kinds of phenomena and increased synchronicities to the point where it was really bizarre. Like finding out that my car insurance broker for years was actually Jim Baker's/Father Yod's son. And discovering that our next-door neighbor, Bud Cort, just happened to be the only movie star who was a member of the Source Family. And multiple psychics saying that they saw a five pointed star with portal points over our house and felt Father Yod's presence in our living room (he was apparently sitting across from me in a big leather chair).
I realized years ago, but especially through this work, that magic and the spiritual world are very real and they influence things, and for me, if I keep my intentions focused on the greater good, amazing things can happen that are powerful and benevolent.
I love LA now because there is a community of crazy talented musicians, artists, writers, and filmmakers who have an understanding of esoteric/spiritual ideas and practices, and they're all friends with one another. It's a collective, harmonious vibe, and they're making very inspired work together with a strong aesthetic sensibility and a high level of quality. It's the most vital creative scene I've witnessed in all my years in LA.
I loved how it helped me better understand this city, because I feel like this story couldn't have happened anywhere else. Not how it did. Everyone's kind of out of their minds out here, in the best way.
Los Angeles has always been home to radical spirituality and creative visionaries. Most outsiders think of LA as being shallow and all about the film industry or the darker James Ellroy side. I see it in a very different way. Its essence is deep, intuitive, and wildly inventive.
Why now for this documentary?
Our world is a mess. Old paradigms are breaking down, creating space for new visions. We can let corporations fill those voids, or people can take action. In the early seventies, it was a similar situation. Hundreds of thousands of young people rejected mainstream culture and formed communities to try to create a world they would want to live in. The Source Family was just one of these many groups. Whether they could sustain themselves or had flawed aspects is not important. The groups' radical idealism and actions to find a better way of living and a deeper understanding of what it means to be human transformed everyone who participated, including communal hippies like Steve Jobs and Stewart Brand.
What's the difference between "cult" and "community"?
For me, a cult has a charismatic leader who is the point of focus and from whom all relevant ideas, decisions, and rules generate. A community by its nature requires contributions from multiple people and is about strong relationships and a type of egalitarianism. The cult/cult leader mentality (including the cult of personality) feels archaic to me now. But community is the past, present, and future.
Speaking of the future, what's next?
There's one more screening in Austin today. Then three weeks of sleep and no internet.
Friday, March 16, 6:45 PM - 8:30 PM
Venue: Alamo Lamar B
1120 S Lamar Blvd, Austin, Texas
More from Process Media here.