The Source Family
Here, Barron Sherer interviews Jodi Wille, the co-director of the widely-praised documentary about the Source family. The film opens tonight, May 16th, at O’Cinema and will be shown through Sunday, May 20th.
BARRON SHERER (RAIL): Were the notable Drag City releases of Source Family recordings in the mid-2000s key to your interest in this subculture? What were the circumstances that lead you to make the film?
JODI WILLE: I found out about the Family through the music, when a friend turned me onto the GOD AND HAIR box set put out by the Japanese psych label Captain Trip in 1999. I was shocked that this family had existed in Los Angeles and had such a striking style and creative output and I’d never heard of them. I’d been obsessed with cults and fringe religions for many years. There was nothing online, either.
Five years later, I was given a student film on the family. There were interviews with a few family members and I was struck by their intelligence, candor, and charm. It wasn’t at all what I expected. I wanted to meet these people. At that point they had a website and I contacted them about doing a book (I’m a book publisher, too). So we started working on a book together, which became “The Source: The Untold Story of Father Yod, Yahowha 13, and The Source Family” by Isis Aquarian and Electricity Aquarian. The film grew from the book project once I heard that Isis had five hours of super 8 home movies she and others had shot in the family. The intimacy and natural quality of the film shot of the group behind closed doors was mind blowing. I brought in Maria Demopoulos, a commercial director, documentary producer, and longtime friend, to direct with me and we moved forward from there.
RAIL: The Source Family’s spiritual leader Father Yod YaHoWha (Jim Baker) cherry-picked his way through religion and philosophy. He made changes in the Family’s belief system, he issued commandments then contradicted them. Was the creation of the family’s improvisational music the same? Clearly, creative and talented people gravitated toward the family. How much of the music was dictated by Yod and was the music created in a vacuum or were members buying Ash Ra Temple and International Harvester records?
RAIL: The documentary is refreshingly rough-hewn and shaggy with an aesthetic that complements the subject matter and period. It has an incredible and evocative atmosphere. Was your film’s skilled but decidedly not slick, tableau born out of how you chose to represent your subject matter or budget constraints?
WILLE: We made a distinct stylistic choice to authentically convey the aesthetic and vibe of the family as fully as possible, utilizing not only their photographic imagery, but also fonts pulled from original Family paraphernalia for our titles, and original record art for our motion graphics. Father Yod’s conceptualization and aesthetic sensibility, from the record covers to the clothing people were wearing to the matching fleet of VW busses, was very specific and consciously conceived, with a mysterious quality that was somehow primal and yet oddly chic—a sort of high-end outsider occult aesthetic. We loved that style and wanted to evoke it as much as possible in the film.
RAIL: The Source Family archivist and caretaker, Isis Aquarian, is an associate producer on the film. Is this frank film a sponsored, authorized production that was ultimately approved by the Family?
WILLE: It was critical to us that no family members would have editorial control or anything beyond minimal editorial input into the making of the film. But we wanted some input to make sure the film felt authentic to the overall experience for the Family. Isis was a crucial member of the team, as it was her archive we were accessing and through her that we gained access to a number of family members. But she understood that for us to feel we could portray accurately what we felt to be the overall truth of the family, not just any one person’s or any group’s agenda, we needed to make this film on our own, with no input from her or any other family members until it was nearly finished.
We were very fortunate to have so much trust from Isis and other Family members to make such an intimate and revealing warts-and-all style film, and all of the family members we’ve spoken to so far say they feel it is an authentic portrayal of the overall truth of the story.
RAIL: At what point did you do your archival research? Were the Family interviews conducted and followed up with the search for footage to illustrate their anecdotes or did available materials guide your use of talking heads?
WILLE: I started the research when I flew to Hawaii to stay with Isis and work on the book. I spent about a week going through her massive archives and organizing and scanning images and documents. Later, when we were making the film, Maria and I had Isis send us out other images and documents that we spent a good deal of time examining and editing. I began research interviews on tape during the making of the book, and then around 2010, Maria and I started shooting interviews in HD. Based on the pieces of interviews we decided to use, we searched for archival footage to go with it.
RAIL: Apparently through much of its existence, the Family was not veiled in secrecy in anyway. There is a remarkable intimacy represented in the film through photographs and amateur film footage. Were there any limits to access to materials?
WILLE: The family was actually veiled in secrecy in regards to their homelife–while they had a public face with the restaurant, very few people outside of the family knew what was going on behind closed doors. That’s one reason the home movies are so spectacular and rare. It is an intimate and candid look into a group that was very mysterious to many, for good reason.
RAIL: One of the most interesting aspects of the film is Yod’s ego driven self awareness that lead to Isis being named caretaker of the Family’s legacy and branding that she manages to this day. Her talent and remarkable use of modern tools of expression (still and motion picture cameras, cassette recorders) help immensely in documenting the family’s message and activities. You kind of hit the mother lode in terms of raw materials. While the film is not rushed, you’re presenting an unbelievable epic in about an hour and forty minutes. How did you pare down the story you wanted to tell?
WILLE: Oh, it was torturous, the most painful thing ever to cut the film to 98 minutes. There are so many incredible stories and characters that we couldn’t fit into this film. Important people and big moments in their history. Truth be told, to really tell the story I’d love to tell, we need a sequel—or two.
RAIL: Father Yod’s openness with his followers seems to be a lasting legacy for former family members. Where there topics that turned up in your
research you found participants unwilling to discuss?
WILLE: He was remarkably open and honest to family members by all accounts, and never wavered in this. And for all his flaws, everyone tells us that ultimately, he was a man who gave more than he took. That is why I would never consider him to be a con artist of any kind, although cultural stereotyping might lead someone to this conclusion on a casual glance, and he did have a hustler aspect.
There is only one thing that was off limits in presenting the family’s story, which we agreed to: the family did not want the specifics of their foundational sex magic ritual they practiced to be detailed in the film. We agreed to this, as it’s a pretty wild ritual, and we wanted the audience not to be distracted by sacred rituals that could be easily misinterpreted.
RAIL: Finally, I was reminded of a quote from the John Ford film, The Man Who Shot Valance, while viewing the film. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” How much of the surreal Source Family experiment and Yod’s incredible life illustrated were verified by research?
WILLE: More than you’d think, as both Jim Baker/Father Yod and Isis Aquarian preserved volumes of newspaper articles and other documents that told parts of his and the Family story and verified certain far-fetched sounding facts. And then there were hours of audio where we heard many things coming straight from Yod’s mouth, so we knew he was, for example, definitely discussing at least one bank robbery with the family. But we couldn’t verify everything, and didn’t feel the need. This is a story about a legendary figure, an archetype, a visionary who was also extremely human, and I think his value to us as viewers is far greater when we can conceive of him in this way rather than picking at the details of whatever “truth” cold documents might hold.