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The Source Family

The filmmakers behind the new documentary tell us about the sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll social experiment that was The Source Family.

Interview By Matt Putrino, May 13, 2013

Photos courtesy of Isis Aquarian Archives

In 1969, a bearded restaurateur—and possible bank robber—named Jim Baker opened a vegetarian restaurant on Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip. The Source was an almost instant success, and as it was one of the first health food restaurants in the United States, attracted regulars like John Lennon, Steve McQueen and Marlon Brando.

By 1973 Baker had fully transformed into Father Yod, the white robe-clad, messiah-like leader, of a commune he dubbed The Source Family. The Family would eventually number around 140 members, who all ran the Source restaurant and lived in a single mansion in the Hollywood Hills. The group was multifaceted: it would also write and record dozens of psychedelic rock records (sold in a shop set up next door to their restaurant) and hold countless classes and meditation sessions to help the Family and interested newcomers better understand their brand of utopian spirituality. Eventually nudged out of Los Angeles, the decline of the family accelerated when it attempted to set up a new compound in Hawaii.

Decades later, after finding a Japanese box set of the music of the Source Family music group YaHoWa 13, Jodi Wille began reaching out to Family members in order to piece together a book on their time spent in the Hollywood mansion and Hawaii. Wille enlisted the help of filmmaker Maria Demopoulos to continue the research and eventually adapt the project into the documentary film The Source Family, released in theaters nationwide by Drag City this month.

The Source story feels very much told from the inside, due in part to the involvement of Isis Aquarian, the Family’s brilliantly obsessive documentarian, who was given the official title of historian during her time in the Source Family. In our conversation, the filmmakers lauded her bravery in documenting the entire history of the cult, including such unsavory aspects such as Yod's underage wives. Isis provided everything from graphic images of difficult home births to audio recordings of the Family’s inner traumas.

Nothing Major spoke with Wille and Demopoulos about the film and the Family.

To start our conversation at the end of the film, the “where are they now” segment that concludes the documentary is incredible. What was the biggest surprise you found talking with the Source Family members today?
Jodi Willie: I’d have to go back to before I met everybody doing the book. The biggest surprise for me was not only how well-adjusted most of the Source Family members were, and how they had integrated bits and pieces of their experience in their own lives, but also how successful some of them were in areas that involved the tech industry, science, vegetarian and health food, that sort of thing. When I first found out about the Source Family, because of my own cultural conditioning, I expected them to be less accomplished, not that well adjusted. The stereotype of the mindless cult members and the victim-perpetrator idea. So the biggest surprise for me was that every single one of them defies that stereotype. They were living unique lives in their own way, outside of the dominant mainstream paradigm of our culture.

Maria Demopoulous: For me it would be where Zinarau ended up. I was surprised with how their time in the Source Family informed their choices later in life. 'There was a woman who we had to cut out of the film, but she opened a bunch of vegetarian restaurants and works for a peace organization. They all carry that experience into their present lives. Galaxy, for instance, works in IT, and she’s living a healthy life and being mindful. It’s impressive how much those influences carry through.

Jodi: One of the major values they live by is knowing they’re free. They’re free individuals and they don’t have to buy into the industrialized corporate culture in any way. Even though Galaxy is in IT, she’s running her own business. No one tells her when to get up in the morning. She doesn’t have an asshole boss that she has to kowtow too. Most of them are like that.

YaHoWa 13

For a research based project like this, you dug up some amazing information. Research can sometimes be addictive. What was the research process like? Where did you start?
Jodi: For me, I’ve been obsessed with cults and communes for about 20 years. Fringe religious groups, and '70s American subcultures have been my passion for many years. When I found out about the Source Family, I didn’t know anything about them. And that was after knowing a lot of spiritual groups already. That was in the late '90s when someone turned me onto their box set. I went online and there was nothing there. I ultimately dug up a piece on the Source Family by Byron Coley, the record collector and writer. That was really all there was. My then husband was in a record store one day and saw a student film about the Source Family and thought I’d like it. It led me back to the Internet and I found their website and contacted them. After I contacted them I became totally obsessed with the Source Family. In some ways I’m still obsessed. Not only is their story so amazing, but I find them archetypal of the transformational experimentation that was happening in the '60s and '70s. They’re the most exciting and driven and focused and beautiful and stylish and outrageous of any of cult communes that I know of. And they documented themselves.

Maria: Being a documentary filmmaker is like being a forensic storyteller. We’d do an interview, or Isis would give us information, and we would get a lead that would take us in another direction. For instance, she gave us a list of names of people who frequented the restaurant. We would follow up with those people to see if we could get interviews, and that would lead to something else. Our story was so big and unwieldy. We had so much story which is a great problem to have. We had like a three hour cut, a two and a half hour cut. We just kept whittling it down and taking things out and putting things back.

Isis with tape recorder and Father Yod, 1975

It’s amazing just the sheer amount of information Isis archived during her time in the family. I was curious about that impulse, and that she was even allowed to do that in the Family.
Jodi: Well...she was “allowed” to do it, but there was a point when Father Yod threw all of her tapes in the trash because he did not want to be documented. He didn’t want the Source Family to turn into an ideology, especially after he died. She got so infuriated that she dug every tape she could out of the trash and came to class the next day with the same tape recorder and just started taping again. Isis is one of a kind. It’s a very unique personality. Someone who is single minded and fearless and determined. She’s one of the most tenacious people I’ve ever met. She has a very distinct and rare personality type, and people just got used to it.

Could you walk me through the initiation process of joining The Source Family? I know one member said he had to liquidate his assets and start working in the restaurant. Was that the process for everybody?
Maria: A lot of people would come to the restaurant, or have some contact with the Source Family, and someone would say, “Oh, come to meditation, we’re having a meditation at three in the morning. Don’t be late.” If you were late you weren’t able to come in. A lot of people would come to meditation, and have this big experience at three in the morning with all these candles, and Father Yod would be sitting in his extemporaneous meditation, so he’d be talking. Afterwards they’d have a one-on-one with Father Yod and he would give them a name and a direction, “Go home and liquidate yourself and come back.” [Family members] call their first contact with the Father a “quickening.” It was not something that they walked away and had to think about. It was an immediate gravitational pull toward him. Initiation varied from person to person, but it was immediate. You dropped everything and stayed with the family. That was it. There was no turning back.

I was fascinated with the wealth of the family. There were touches of opulence like Rolls Royces, and they managed to support 140 people in that mansion. Where did the money come from?
Maria: The restaurant. It was the most profitable vegetarian restaurant in the country. They shared their resources, they all lived together. They weren’t getting paid, but they were sharing all the wealth of the restaurant. It was a hugely successful business venture and it sustained them. They were getting food from local farmers, they had an abundance of raw organic food and that allowed them a lifestyle.

Jodi: I would say also, everyone did give everything they had [in terms of finances] when they came in. To a lot of people today in the culture we live in where people like to acquire things, people like to have stuff, it’s hard for people to imagine giving everything to another group. Because they were so young, a lot of them didn’t have a lot to give. Maybe a car, a beat up Pontiac, and an old guitar. Other people had more. Some people gave their trust funds and things like that. Over and above everything Father Yod owned the Source Restaurant, and he gave all the profits back to the family. And yeah they were working for free, but that was just part of the deal back then.

It seemed like Father Yod developed a kind of obsession with youth. He played concerts at high schools, and had increasingly young wives in his polygamist marriage.
Maria: I think [he] recognized that the youth were a very potent force in this country especially at that time. It was a time of extreme change and polarization between the generations because of all the wars going on, and I think he just recognized a potent energy he wanted to attach it to.

Jodi: I think he also just knew for the experiment he created, young people would be the most open, as they generally are. Even though there were older family members. Octavious, the drummer in YaHoWha 13, his mother actually came into the family. She was almost 50 years old and she fell in love with a 16 year old guy, and they had a relationship that lasted for 30 years, well beyond the Family. There was also a Hungarian mobster who brought a lot of money into the family, too. He was a businessman who made his fortune selling school supplies in the Valley. There’s another guy Ajax, who was a part of the Eisenhower administration. There are so many stories we couldn’t tell.

I got the sense that The Source Family was a site-specific, time and a place, social experiment that was a reaction to this condition you’re describing in the mid-'70s. How would The Source Family have to be different if it happened in 2013?
Maria: Well, they were able to be more isolated. It would be more difficult with the Internet and all the global communication happening now.

Jodi: But in some ways, they weren’t too isolated. They had their private moments where they were isolated, but they were giving to the community on a daily basis. Here’s the big difference: it would not be as likely for someone to follow Father Yod the same way they did. We know too much now. People can go on the internet and look up every cult leader in history and find all the good things they did and all the bad things they did. It’s much easier for people to be aware, and aware of phenomena. Father Yod and these other leaders would create phenomena, they seemed like they were magic. They were seemingly channeling this profound information through the ethers, and today you can get that information on the Internet if you’re interested.

The Source Family is in theaters now.