How Commune Became Cult

'The Source Family,' a Documentary on Father Yod

The New York Times/April 30, 2013

For anyone looking to teach a master class in brainwashing techniques, "The Source Family" might be an excellent place to start. Documenting the hippy-dippy lifestyle and hedonistic principles of Hollywood's favorite 1970s cult - led by the self-professed guru and suspected bank robber Jim Baker, a k a Father Yod - Maria Demopoulos and Jodi Wille's disturbing film is an object lesson in psychological manipulation.

Working a powerful combo of personal magnetism and easy-to-digest philosophies - what young person doesn't want to hear that marijuana-enhanced sex is the purest route to enlightenment? - Mr. Baker became the "superrich father" to a band of gorgeous devotees (not a few of them underage girls). A 6-foot-4 former Marine who styled himself as something like a cross between Dr. Andrew Weil and Charlton Heston in "The Ten Commandments," he used his popular health food restaurant (featured most famously in "Annie Hall") as recruitment bait. The commune grew, as did Mr. Baker's self-delusion and harem of sister wives, until its morning meditations and bizarrely out-there music became too freaky even for people with adoptive names like Om-Ne and Electricity.

Unearthing a decent sample of these former members, as well as a wealth of archival film and photographs, the directors elicit testimony that's diversely sharp, spacey, nostalgic and heartbreaking. Clutching a picture of Mr. Baker - who died in a hang-gliding incident in Hawaii in 1975 - his first cult wife (two previous real-world wives were abandoned) seems tragically marked by his psychoses, and the film's final scenes confirm that some of his flock have emerged more whole than others.

"I know this sounds insane, but I saw lightning bolts coming out of his ears," one star-struck acolyte marvels. Whether the rest of Mr. Baker's body was similarly expressive remains, thankfully, undivulged.

The Source Family

Opens on Wednesday in Manhattan.

Directed by Maria Demopoulos and Jodi Wille; director of photography, John Tanzer; edited by Jen Harrington and Claire Didier; produced by Ms. Wille, Ms. Demopoulos, Holly Becker and Amaryllis Knight; released by Drag City Film Distribution. At the IFC Center, 323 Avenue of the Americas, at Third Street, Greenwich Village. Running time: 1 hour 38 minutes. This film is not rated.

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