Recently I finished reading Roman Polanski’s autobiography, so when I sat down to watch this documentary about an L.A. based cult in the 1970s the Manson family was on my mind. But even if I hadn’t just read a first person account of the Sharon Tate murder I would have been primed to think about the Mansons because this film sets up a mixture of utopia and violence early on.
This documentary begins by talking about the life of Father Yod, the cult’s founder, before he became “enlightened”. Back when Yod was called James Baker he served in World War Two and after he was discharged he killed at least two people. He successfully argued in court that the first man was killed in self defense, but he served some jail time for the second, because after he judo chopped the man in the throat he also shot him in the head. Since we already know that this guy is going to change his name and become a guru this opening section is pretty unsettling. No good generally comes out of cults, but cults founded by violent men are even less promising.
However, the movie doesn’t unspool like you might think it would from that set up. I’m hesitant to go into specifics because that would spoil the movie, but the fact that the Source Family’s story doesn’t actually end with everyone dying in a bonfire kind of makes sense. People still talk about “drinking the Kool-Aid” because Jonestown still inhabits some dark part of our psyche, and the Manson family still looms large in their own way, so if there had been some violent uprising at the end of the story we would probably all know about the Source Family already. The fact that this movie is bringing their existence to light for the first time in decades should have warned me that maybe it wasn’t going to be as dramatic of a story as it initially seemed it would be.
I don’t think the inclusion of Yod’s violent past is a total misdirect because it does set him up as a fascinating and in many ways contradictory figure. Still, it also feels a bit dishonest because they have to know all the early talk of armed robbery was going to raise expectations that the filmmakers knew the facts wouldn’t live up to. I’m not encouraging them to sensationalize anything, but I do think that the way they presented some of their information could have been handled a bit more subtly, because they alluded to the elephant in the room but then ended up mostly ignoring it.
Narrative clumsiness aside, however, this is a captivating documentary, balancing Yod’s personal magnetism against the creepiness of commune life to create a complicated portrait of a very strange time and place. This is a must see documentary for people who are fascinated by cults, but it’s also pretty entertaining in general.