During the radical fervor of the late 1960s and early 1970s, utopian communities – Communes — dotted the country. They aimed to reshape the world with free love and common property, and they excited controversy and fear amongst local, often rural, residents across the country. Though the idea of communes is now often relegated to a naïve past, there exits one successful and lasting, if controversial, legacy of the communes at the Black Bear Ranch, in Siskiyou County, California.
A group of young rebels, hippies and political idealists moved to the remote wilderness to create a new society, armed with the slogan “Free Land for Free People,” and financed by the largesse of Hollywood rock stars. The founders of Black Bear bought a rural, abandoned gold mine and raised a rough-hewn homestead. To implode their 1950s upbringing, they attempt to reprogram their minds, bodies and souls to create something entirely revolutionary … a worldwide “free family.”
But exploring endless freedom created bigger problems. The would-be utopia was beset by problems. The fragile bonds of human connection became frayed, especially when the group discovered that each person had a totally different idea of what utopia might look like … and that “free love” wasn’t free after all.
Over the years, hundreds would join the community, and life would be complicated by growing conflicts about the role of women, child-rearing, proper communalist behavior, the FBI, and most traumatically, a child-snatching cult.
Close to 40 years later the Black Bear Ranch remains open land – it’s owned as a Land Trust by anyone who has ever spent a winter there. Currently a handful of younger people live on the Ranch, while many of the older participants have settled near by, working on environmental issues through the Salmon River Restoration Council.
“Commune,” released last month by First Run features, is a documentary that tells the story of that group of young counterculture leaders who attempted to create a utopia in the California wilderness. With unusual archival footage from the early days, and the candid present-day views of Black Bear members and their offspring, “Commune” is a revealing look at how our most basic choices about family, work, and relationship can send powerful and lasting shock waves through the fabric of communities, nations, and the world.
Features actor Peter Coyote, herbalist Michael Tierra (“The Way of Herbs”) and Chinese medicine pioneers Efrem Korngoild and Harriet Beinfield (“Between Heaven and Earth”).
For more info: Commune the Movie