Most cults have a very similar life cycle: the early days are filled with bliss and optimism but darkness and turmoil eventually emerge and the group falls apart. Thus, it’s inevitable that a lot of documentaries about these groups feel like they are following the exact same template. Although the events depicted in The Source Family (2012) fall right in line with the cult life cycle theory, Maria Demopoulos and Jodi Willie’s engaging direction and whole-hearted embrace of the cult’s unique peculiarities give this film a special edge.
Jim Baker was born in California. He was childhood friends with the Bragg family; the Braggs kicked off the modern health food movement with restaurants and organic food products under the name Bragg’s Live Foods. After serving in World War 2, Baker followed in his friends’ footsteps by starting a series of restaurants, including a highly influential Los Angeles spot called The Source. This vegetarian restaurant became a focal point of the L.A. counterculture, attracting hippies, celebrities and trend seekers from all over the United States.
The sex, drugs and rock-and-roll boom of the late 60s coincided with Baker’s mid-life crisis. Baker, who was rich and infatuated with young women, did what a lot of such men did (or tried to do) and successfully transformed himself into a cult guru. He named himself Father Yod and later became Yahowa. Baker’s Source cult wholeheartedly embraced the hippy zeitgeist, including raw foods, holistic medicine, natural childbirth, kundalini yoga, hedonistic sex, and the power of psychedelic rock music (Ya Ho Wa 13 record dozens of albums). Baker eventually moved his whole operation into series of mansions in L.A. (“The Mother House” and “The Father House”) with Rolls Royce cars lining the driveways, multiple wives and hippies pouring out of every window and door.
Directed with a friendly touch by Maria Demopoulos and Jodi Willie, The Source Family is built around original photos and footage captured by cult member Isis Aquarian as well as numerous original talking head interviews. Outside observers such as Janet Fitch, Pamela Des Barres, Don Bolles and Erik Davis provide insight into the historical context of the group and the era in which it thrived. Numerous ex-cult members are interviewed and they dive into all aspects of their experiences and Baker’s life story. Despite the cult’s ultimate failure and Jim Baker’s numerous problems, there’s an implicit acknowledgement in The Source Family that, at least in some cases, cults might provide a positive benefit to their members. Although many of the ex-cult members are cynical and skeptical, others are still enthralled by Baker and his teachings. Many of the practices that Baker helped promote are currently mainstream. Replace the white robes with Patagonia clothes and Birkenstock sandals and none of this seems very far from the way that many middle class and upper class people are living right now.