Monday, May 27, 2013

Movie Review: The Source Family

The Source Family
Directed:  Maria Demopoulos & Jodi Wille.

Watching The Source Family, I couldn’t help but think there was more to the story than I was being told. This is a documentary about Jim Baker aka Father Yod, a WWII hero, suspected bank robber, and probable murderer, who in the late 1960s and early 1970s – when he was well into middle age – started what ended up essentially being a cult. Baker was a successful restaurateur, who abandoned not one but two families before his “enlightenment” who started The Source restaurant in Los Angeles (famously seen in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall – the hilarious clip of which is in the movie). It was a vegan restaurant – one of the first of its kind in America – drew celebrities such as Goldie Hawn, Jane Fonda, John Lennon, etc. and was hugely successful. But the restaurant hides a darker secret – that Baker was essentially a cult leader. He would draw in young people – especially women, many under the age of 18 – and then would give up their life savings to the “family” and then abandon their previous lives to wait tables, be busboys or chefs in the restaurant. One woman was engaged to a famous photographer when she joined – and wanted him to join too – something to this day he finds incredible. As the film progresses, things get darker and darker – Baker ordering any girl under 18 in the family to get married (to avoid statutory rape charges) and dictating who ends up with who. Throwing over the woman he was married to – and who the family considered a “mother” to his father, so he can take on 13 different wives at the same time. When the family abandons LA and moves to Hawaii, the neighbors apparently complained about “this Manson family” type – and while it’s true The Source Family never murdered anyone, it’s not hard to draw some similarities between the two groups.

This well could have served as the basis for an excellent documentary – but in order for it to be one; the film had to be darker than it is – more probing into Baker and his group. As it stands, this is a mostly sympathetic portrait of a man who you could certainly argued brainwashed young women – sometimes criminally young women – into having sex with him. The movie interviews some former members – but other than the ex-wife Robin who he tosses aside, and who still says “I’ve never known love like the love I had with him” even though she’s still bitter and angry with him, almost all of the interview subjects have seemingly nothing but fond memories of Baker. True, some admit that eventually they grew tired of Baker and moved on with their lives – whether it was the sex with young women, his forbidding the family from seeking medical treatment or something else, eventually everyone moved on. And yet, the still talk of him as if they are in awe of him – and recount the “miracles” he performed. No one admits to regretting the time they spent as part of the family. Many in fact still keep in contact with each other, and while they are no longer a cult, still look back in reverence at those days.

Perhaps that is what directors Maria Demopoulos and Jodi Wille had in mind with The Source Family – to show how powerful these types of charismatic leaders can be – that even after decades, people still worship him. But that doesn’t really come across in The Source Family. Surely there are some people out there they could have interviewed that would have delved more into the dark side of this family – and of Baker himself. Instead, the movie seems spend most of its time praising Baker, praising the music his family made, and looking back with nostalgia at a bygone era.

As it stands, The Source Family seems more like a rough draft than a finished product. The film feels half formed and is incomplete. Perhaps the filmmakers needed more interviews – to cast a wider net (not many of the 13 wives are interviewed for example), or perhaps they just needed to push their interview subjects harder. But the finished product feels almost like an endorsement of this cult rather than a full examination of it.

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