For thirty years, the word 'hippie' has evoked derision and bad jokes. Punk rockers cynically conflated hippies with coke-snorting record executives or mindless flower children. On the other side of the divide but equally clueless, the Right Wing blamed hippies for the demise of a morally perfect America that never existed. 'Hippie' was a media handle for the vast and unwieldy phenomenon of young people in the 1960s and '70s who comprised the largest mass bohemian movement in human history.
Myths, assumptions, and conflicting definitions contributed to various revisionist histories. Filmmaker Jonathan Berman has made a beautiful documentary that depicts the real deals: a group of hippies who formed the Black Bear Ranch commune in Siskiyou County in Northern California in the late '60s. His film COMMUNE is a powerful cinematic story of one attempt amongst countless others to create a separate society based on sharing rather than hoarding, voluntary poverty rather than involuntary servitude, developing relationships through love and empathy rather than envy and competition.
Alternating between contemporary interviews and archival film footage, we meet the communards. Artist Elsa Marley, wielding her slogan of FREE LAND FOR FREE PEOPLE, guilt tripped wealthy rock stars for cash in 1968 and bought 80 acres of remote, pristine wilderness. Joined by husband and labor organizer Richard Marley and other artists and activists (including actor Peter Coyote, who had been a member of the San Francisco anarchist troupe The Diggers), Black Bear Ranch suffered through freezing winters and the challenges of rural life, a comical "pot" bust by local cops that yielded tomatoes, and FBI surveillance. In the name of rejecting bourgeois convention, the Bears discouraged couples from cohabitating for more than two nights, the result being a cauldron of jealousies. Eventually, ideological extremes withered away and a livable community was created from scratch.
Most impressive is that despite some fissures in the group, most have maintained a lifelong membership in the Black Bear Ranch family. The scenes of child birthing and midwives, the joyous faces of the feral children raised there, swimming en masse in streams and partaking of the sweat lodge in carefree nudity, and the hard physical labor required to keep the commune self-sufficient, show that a collection of human beings can come together, demand the impossible and then bring it to fruition. It's immaterial that the original communards chose to leave the land or that there were some horrific errors of judgment, one involving the indulgence of a cult who moved to the ranch and absconded with one of the children. The child survived the ordeal, is now an adult woman and grateful for her unorthodox upbringing.
Black Bear Ranch is still a functioning commune, mostly populated by young hippies called "New Bears". The Black Bear Land Trust ensured group ownership in perpetuity. Giving lie to the clichés of hippies-turned-yuppies or glassy-eyed fools or amoral narcissists, COMMUNE is a testament to the commitment to utopian ideals by a tough crew who succeeded. It's a reminder that America's pioneer stock is still in our DNA and that we are capable of living our dreams.