The Black Bear Ranch, the subject of Jonathan Berman’s documentary Commune, is a good place to start examining the impact of ‘60s and ‘70s counterculture communes in the United States. It was typical in its roots yet unusual in that the experiment was successful and continues today. Berman approaches his subject with admirable open-mindedness. But his tight focus on the memories of the founders, coupled with a lackadaisical structure, obscures the larger story.
The commune movement grew out of an impulse, uniquely vigorous in American history, to square off a piece of land and start a new society from scratch. The original settlers of Black Bear were reacting to disgust with Washington politics and were influence by the proliferation of idealistic -isms in the ‘60s, particularly back-to-the-land. In 1968 founders Richard Marley and his wife Elsa purchased “80 acres surrounded by a million acres of national park wilderness” in Northern California and invited like-minded individuals to join them. Member Cedar says, “I moved there to get away from America…But I always felt proud that I was American, but to me these values are represented in open-mindedness and free thinking and tolerance and the ability to do what you want.”
Berman is somewhat disingenuous in his depiction of Black Bear’s creation. An FBI memo is shown on screen stating, “Commune might be a training ground for militants planning insurrection in Northern California.” Harriet Beinfeld admits to being involved with the Black Panthers and escaping to the ranch in order to “get out of town”. Yet the commune is portrayed as being unfairly targeted by overzealous Feds. They weren’t entirely unjustified in their actions. In the book The 60s Communes: Hippies and Beyond Richard is quoted as saying, “The original group weren’t thinking of a commune; they were thinking of a mountain fortress in the spirit of Che Guevara, where city activists would be able to come up, hide out, practice riflery and pistol shooting, have hand grenade practice, whatever.”
Commune‘s most irritating habit is to render quaint the complicated elements of its history, while leaving the most dramatic issues unexplored. Beinfeld touches on the rampant chauvinism, “Everybody who was male had a bowie knife attached onto their sides, There was that kind of ‘we’re from the Wild West’, very Western attitude.” But this line is then abandoned with some innocuous comments about the women demanding to take part in the work. Likewise a botched drug raid on the farm, where the seized marijuana shoots ended up being tomato plants, is accompanied by jokey folk music. While there is a certain “Alice’s Restaurant”-style humor to the episode, the harassment the communes faced from law enforcement was serious and quite real.
Rifts within the community are rarely treated as anything other than amusing squabbles. There isn’t a sense of the delicate balance between anarchy and order, how they developed and maintained their social structure, and how this way of life affected their psyches.
One terrifying episode is left crucially underreported. Idealism and utopianism can verge on totalitarianism and the United States has an equally unique history in hosting messianic and death cults. In 1979 the Shiva Lilas, a “nomadic group that worships children” descended on Black Bear like a parasite and started taking over the ranch. One member recalls, “Their practice was to drop acid and hang out with the babies.” Footage shows they were clearly dangerous and deranged.
Black Bear was already struggling with how to deal with raising children in their isolated environment. The Marley’s son Aaron complains that they were treated like “lab rats”. The arrival of Shiva Lila brought these issues to the fore. Eventually they were kicked off the property and they moved to India and the Philippines taking Black Bear members and their kids with them. Tsetiliya, a young girl at the time, recalls being abandoned by the adults in a rural Filipino village where a diphtheria outbreak resulted in the deaths of other children. She says, “A hole was ripped in my reality.”
The episode jolted the remaining Black Bear members. But Berman doesn’t probe very deeply into their relationship with this shocking incident. Did Shiva Lila’s skewed idealism make them question their own? Did their open-mindedness lead them to put up with the cult much longer than they should have? Should they have prevented them from taking any of the kids? Should they have dropped their anti-authoritarian stance and gone to the police? They deserve to be questioned on these points and Berman lets them off too easily.
Many of the original Black Bear members left soon afterwards to pursue outside careers and/or raise their children in towns with schools. Sooner or later all communes are doomed to fall apart, but this doesn’t mean they don’t have lasting benefits. Oftentimes what has been learned in the experiment is disseminated to the wider society after the microcosm dissolves itself. The documentary is good about paying tribute to their vigor and ingenuity of the original Black Bear members and how they took what they learned to jobs in agriculture, education, social activism, and the legal field. (The most well known member is actor Peter Coyote.)
What’s ironic is that Black Bear probably succeeded because it was so far removed from the culture from which it sprang. The everyday tasks that had to be completed to ensure survival tethered their loftier ideals. Says Creek, “It was do it, there wasn’t a lot of philosophical, we had to be very practical”. Isolation also deterred the casually interested and drug dealers from swarming the premises, which is what partially sunk the prominent communities closer to San Francisco.
But what does the Black Bear community mean to the original participants? What do they see as their legacy? What do they think they accomplished? Berman doesn’t probe very deeply into any of these points. The documentary finishes with a “Where are they now?” montage, but that question should have been answered before the closing credits. The extras, additional old footage of the ranch and extended interviews, don’t provide any worthwhile information or put the feature into cultural or historical context.
Though Commune appears to be paying tribute to the Black Bear members, its collection of disjointed memories ends up reinforcing the hippie stereotype of flakey and impractical when their intellectual underpinnings, whether sound or not, deserve to be examined more closely.