Commune (Director: Jonathan Berman): Black Bear Ranch is 300 acres of land which was purchased in 1968 by a group of “hippies” who wanted to live communally. They raised the $22,000 to purchase the land by soliciting donations from musicians like Frank Zappa, The Monkees and The Doors. Jonathan Berman’s film uses archival footage and present-day interviews with many of the people who chose to abandon what they felt was a corrupt American society to try something new.
All of us have heard stories about “hippies living in communes,” but this is a mostly clear-eyed look at what it was really like. The counterculture of the 1960s was a mishmash of dozens of different causes, political movements, and religious explorations, not to mention people who were just curious or lonely. What happened when a group of people came together under the slogan “free land for free people” was perhaps predictable in hindsight, but in the heady days of countercultural revolution, they thought anything was possible. We meet several memorable characters, principally Richard Marley, who with his wife Elsa was one of the founders of the commune. Already in his mid-30s at the time, he might have thought of himself as a father figure. He’d been a labour organizer and was disappointed that these idealistic youngsters didn’t seem to want to be organized at all. Despite that, he and Elsa decided to stay and see what these “anarchists” might teach them. A remarkably resilient community grew out of these humble beginnings, and though it’s not completely clear from the film, Black Bear Ranch still functions in many ways as a community for alternative living.
Not that there weren’t a lot of bumps along the way. The group grew beyond Richard and Elsa’s expectations, and nobody ever really asked what they hoped to achieve. People came to Black Bear for different reasons, and because human nature never really changes, idealism was accompanied by a lot of blind spots and hypocrisy. There were issues of sexism, racism and classism which were touched on, but I was hoping the film would be more insightful here. Why, for instance, did everyone seem to be white? Why did they all seem to come from affluent homes? The physical labour required in this kind of “back to the land” homesteading revealed men and women reverting back to their traditional gender roles at first, which caused some controversy. Soon enough, women were out cutting wood with the men. But despite that, their experiments in communal parenting and free love seemed to end in miserable failure, and many couples eventually moved away to find schools for their children. More exploration of why they thought things went wrong would have helped the film here.
One chilling incident occurred in 1979, when the commune invited an itinerant group called the Shiva Lila to join them. The Shiva Lila had all the trappings of a cult, following the teachings of one man, dropping lots of acid and worshipping children. After a while, the original Black Bear inhabitants had to ask them to leave, a sobering realization for people who thought everyone could get along.
Human beings are endlessly idealistic, but we are also petty, jealous, power-hungry, lustful, lazy and self-righteous. Jonathan Berman’s film provides a look into the muddled and beautiful mess that was the 60s counterculture. Listening to people with colourful names like Cedar, Mahaj, Wakan, Osha, Creek, and Kenoli made me smile. Sure, they were a bit too optimistic, but they actually went out and tried to live their idealism. It was heartening to see that many of these rainbow warriors are still involved in community activism and social justice, but they’re wistful about those years when it looked like they might actually be able to change the whole world. Perhaps the communes of the 21st century won’t look like Black Bear Ranch, but the people who lived there still have a lot to teach us.
Always interesting to see what lasts, or doesn’t.