Co-directors Maria Demopoulos and Jodi Wille had an unusual advantage when making their fascinating new documentary, The Source Family, which centers on the late Jim Baker, an admitted killer and onetime Marine who (among other things) fronted an influential psychedelic rock band, founded one of America's first vegetarian restaurants and reinvented himself as a spiritual patriarch. Baker led a commune in the Hollywood Hills, before plunging to his death from a cliff in Hawaii in a bizarre 1975 hang-gliding incident that remains shrouded in controversy.
Most filmmakers dealing with events that occurred so many decades ago resort to using talking heads to tell the story, but Demopoulos and Wille had a secret weapon — Isis Aquarian, a key figure in the Source Family commune and one of Baker's 13 wives during the heady time when he was calling himself Father Yod (and was seen by many of his followers as the living embodiment of God).
Yod was prescient enough to appoint Aquarian as the sect's historian, allowing her to film and photograph almost everything that occurred in the Source Family's compounds in Los Feliz and Hollywood, from previously private religious ceremonies and concerts by his ultra-freaky band, Ya Ho Wa 13, to births within the Family and, eventually, even Yod's death.
It turns out that Aquarian was the perfect person to do this. Born and raised as Charlene Peters, she was a former Miss U.S. Savings Bonds who quickly grew tired of the debutante scene in Washington, D.C., and moved in the mid-'60s to Manhattan, where she fell in with Andy Warhol's Factory crowd before being lured away by the literal and figurative sunniness of Southern California.
Yod's first assignment for the newly renamed Isis Aquarian was filming a 15-year-old Source acolyte named Nancy as she gave birth at the Family's Los Feliz mansion. But what should have been a joyous occasion nearly turned tragic when the baby boy appeared to be stillborn, choked by the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck. The way Father Yod was able to breathe into the baby's mouth and bring it back to life was astonishing enough when recounted in the book, but it appears even more miraculous through the documentary (the footage shows before and after the incident, as the breath is described by the narrator).
Of course, there was a high price for such intimacy. "Almost my whole adventure with this family was done through the lens of a camera, including his death ... which was pretty weird," a sobbing Isis confesses during a key scene in The Source Family.
Not only was she a good photographer but Aquarian also remained loyal to Father Yod long after many members had moved on and hidden their past with a group that the public considered a cult and often had confused with the Source Family's spiritual opposites, the violent Manson Family.
With fellow Source member Electricity Aquarian, Isis published the first extensive account of the group in 2006, which was expanded a year later with editor Wille into the Process book The Source: The Untold Story of Father Yod, Ya Ho Wa 13 and the Source Family.
Father Yod didn't have a Messiah complex so much as he was a complex messiah. By all reports, his spiritual teachings — combining Judeo-Christian traditions with elements of Native American rituals, Eastern mysticism, pagan rites and Theosophy — had a positively transformative physical, mental and even sexual effect on his young followers, at least early on, before Yod's beliefs became more extreme and he started taking on extra wives.
Everything was funded by the group's popular Sunset Strip restaurant the Source, where celebrities like John Lennon, Julie Christie and Joni Mitchell dropped by. "The Family was surrounded by celebrity, but they weren't impressed by it," Wille says in an interview at Demopoulos' Silver Lake house.
The Source was the source of the Family's power and influence, which inevitably led to a hippie-savaging parody on Saturday Night Live and an infamous scene in Woody Allen's Annie Hall, in which Allen, sitting on the real Source's patio, plaintively orders "a plate of mashed yeast."
"All roads led to the Source," Demopoulos says. "It was a spiritual center of the community."
Wille sees Yod "as an archetype ... a multidimensional conceptual artist in a high-risk situation."
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Demopoulos adds, "I didn't walk into this thinking he was a perfect guy; I knew there would be complications."
Isis says she's pleased that the film is already attracting attention on the festival circuit. "The Source Family has crossed over into the mainstream, which is unheard of for a spiritual-genre film," she says.
In keeping with the Source Family's idealistic blend of spirituality and hedonism, the two filmmakers intend to make the film's premiere at the Standard a real happening, with a pop-up restaurant serving food from the original Source menu, a Ya Ho Wa 13 tribute band and a sacramental smoking of sacred herb. A white-magic ritual takes place across the street in the parking lot of the old Source restaurant.
THE SOURCE FAMILY premieres at the Standard, 8300 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood; Thurs., May 9, 8 p.m.; $18 & $50. It then screens at Cinefamily, 611 N. Fairfax Ave.; May 10-16; $12; (323) 655-2510, cinefamily.org.