Film Review: Both Story and History

Published by the Alternate Dream

The American Commune

Directed by Rena Mundo Croshere and Nadine Mundo

USA | 2012 | 90 min

Autobiographies, especially those in the searching-for-my-past style of this one, rarely make for good history but The American Commune, made by two sisters about their own past so excellently delivers that it’s equally great as a narrative of their lives and that of an episode of history. It is one of the most well-made films of this year’s festival and a testament to the talent of her young directors.

Rena and Nadine were born in 1970’s in The Farm, a commune founded by counterculture prophet Stephen Gaskin who led hundreds of fellow hippies from San Francisco to rural Tennessee. A farming community was founded there on radical Christian and egalitarian ideas. All was now held in common, vegetarianism ruled as you couldn’t eat anything that could be ‘looked at in the eye,’ and Gaskin’s ideals were held as a bible that had to be followed. The Farm became the most famous of its kind in America and subject of constant media attention.

What makes The American Commune such a great film is the balanced way in which the story of sisters and their family (their father and mother, estranged since, are both interviewed) goes along narrating the story of The Farm, which itself is told in a way as to tell us a lot about the whole history of the rise of counterculture in America in 70’s and 80’s. The Farm apparently benefited from astute film archiving and so there is plenty of original footage in the film, in addition to those from the media organizations. This is mixed with touching interviews by some of the hippie communards of the project.

The story is told so dramatically that one follows it like a page-turner. It starts (and ends) with the sisters attending an annual reunion of The Farm residents. The whole story is centered arounds this return which predicates the sisters’ search for the past. Many historical points are raised in the story. Some obvious follies of the project become clear through reminiscences. For instance, Gaskin’s unchallengeable position and some of his indefensible positions like requiring marriage for any couple who ever had sex. The moment of The Farm’s collapse, due to a conflict between those who sought an increase in the diminishing standard of living and the few like Gaskin who obstinately refused any attention to this pressing issue, is beautifully captured by interviewing a few eyewitnesses. Anybody with historical interest in hippie communes will benefit from the film as much she/he would from a well-written history of The Farm.

Cherry on the top of the film is the way it ends. Your reviewer came to tears there and I doubt that there were many dry eyes in the audience. After all these years and immediately after we hear about The Farm’s privatization and collapse, Nadine, in the middle of the project, is diagnosed with cancer. She is shocked when she receives dozens of letters from The Farm’s ex-residents with generous cheques to support her treatment. We hear that she is now treated and well.

This touching ending says a lot about the strong characters of the girls in the film that has made such a film possible as opposed to just another ‘cult film’ cautionary tale that’d reproach us all from imagining a different world. They, who moved to Los Angeles in their early 20’s, after The Farm’s collapse, and went on to work for the MTV, said that they’d made the movie precisely because they sought to recover something treasurable in their past. As a result, their treatment is neither romanticizing nor simply scuffing at the egalitarian values that animated their parents. That touching story at the end is, in fact, a reminder of the great egalitarian possibilities of the human race. It is this treasure that the sisters discover in their expedition, in the form of a saved life. In the process, they’d given us a beautiful film and a strong historical account.

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