When someone says California cults, Charles Manson and his deranged band of homicidal followers immediately come to mind. But "The Source Family," a 98-minute documentary about Father Yod and his Source Family followers, who lived, loved and ate vegetarian in Los Angeles in the early 1970s, frames the excesses and intrigues of this particular radical social experiment in a much more positive light.
The film, co-directed by Jodi Wille and Maria Demopoulos, begins with Ohio native Jim Baker, a Marine in World War II who moved to Hollywood in the 1950s to become a stuntman. Baker fell into the restaurant and bar business, but after tiring of his hard-drinking, unhealthy lifestyle, he was turned on to a vegetarian diet, Kundalini yoga, Vedanta religion and other esoteric Eastern teachings. In 1969, Baker, now calling himself Father Yod or Ya Ho Wha, opened The Source Restaurant, one of America's first organic eateries, on Hollywood's Sunset Strip — and bought a Hollywood Hills mansion to house his employees and followers.
With the restaurant generating upward of $10,000 a day in revenue, Father Yod and his family were free to live a life dictated by free love, natural health and utopian visions of a remade society. Yes, Father Yod was a mystical, patriarchal figure who took 13 wives and spawned countless children — but that's about where the maniacal manipulations ended for the Source Family. Instead, Yod organized a psych-rock band, YaHoWha 13, which cut several far-out jam sessions on vinyl, and urged his followers to explore occultism, nudism, tantrism and pioneering raw-foods vegetarianism.
In the mid-'70s, local and federal authorities were examining Source Restaurant's finances, so the entire Source Family split for Hawaii; in 1975, Father Yod died in a freak hang-gliding accident, and the commune dispersed. But the story of Father Yod and the Source Family lives on, mostly thanks to Isis Aquarian, group archivist who wrote the 2007 book "The Source: The Untold Story of Father Yod." The book's publisher, Jodi Wille, became obsessed with the group's archive, and voilà — the idea for a fascinating documentary was born.
Folio Weekly: How did you two first decide to make this documentary?
Jodi Wille: In 1999, I came across a box set of YaHoWha 13 records put out by a Japanese label, and my jaw dropped — I've been a researcher of fringe religious groups for 20 years, and a book publisher on '60s and '70s counterculture for 15 years, and I didn't know about this cult from Los Angeles! Five years later, my husband found this student film about the Source Family, and we were amazed at how articulate, interesting and funny the family members were. So, I got ahold of Isis Aquarian, who wrote me back right away and said, "My brother Electricity and I just finished the book we've been writing for seven years." We collaborated on and expanded the book… That's when I realized this would be an extraordinary film. And I knew if I didn't do it, someone else would.
Maria Demopoulos: The Source Family has an extraordinary story. It's got sex, music, rock 'n' roll … And the archive — oh my God.
F.W.: What makes their archive better than that of other cults?
J.W.: We were incredibly lucky that Isis Aquarian had the tenacity and forethought to take pictures and maintain elaborate scrapbooks and diaries. She was obsessive about it, and she had some really rough years when she lugged those boxes with her wherever she went. Plus, the Source Family members were such attractive people: so over the top, outlandish and beautiful. We were doubly blessed.
F.W.: The family members interviewed in the film refer to their years with Father Yod as some of the best of their lives. Is that common among former cult members?
J.W.: In my experience working with other experimental spiritual communities, the participants often have a very different view from what we've been told by the mass media. I'm not saying that the Manson family was a picnic. But the really bad scenes tend to overshadow the groups that provided powerful, transformative experiences for hundreds of thousands of young people.
M.D.: That's not to say that a lot of bad shit didn't happen. [Laughs.] But many Source Family members credit that time as the most extraordinary and meaningful in their lives.
F.W.: Do either of you think a modern-day Father Yod could emerge?
M.D.: This story has a lot of relevance to our current culture, so it is possible. But it would be different if it did happen.
J.W.: The days of the all-powerful, charismatic leader are over, just because of the Internet. But the collective impulse that drove a lot of people back then is still around. "The Source Family" seems to be getting a lot of traction because people are very dissatisfied with what's happening in our country right now. It's time for new ideas from people who are willing to think outside the box to build a better world.