Delving into San Francisco’s post-hippie decades, an engaging new documentary delves into an experience of community life that was productive and vibrant but, beneath its friendly surfaces, may have been a cult.
In “Far Out West: Inside California’s Kerista Commune,” streaming on iTunes and Amazon, filmmakers Travis Chandler and Dan Greenstone tell the story of Kerista, a prominent community group with egalitarian principles, ideals of free love and an ability to attract media attention. (Images include clips from an appearance on Phil Donohue’s popular talk show.)
They cover a lot of ground.
Kerista was born in 1971 in the Haight Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco, which a few years earlier was the center of hippiedom.
The creator of the commune, John Peltz Presmont, also known as “Bro Jud”, was a transplant from the New York beatnik scene who had founded a religion and ran the group much like a religious society. He asked the 25 to 30 members of Kerista – young idealists looking for alternatives to the rat race and the nuclear family – to adhere to certain rules and beliefs.
They included polyfidelity: sex was an important part of life in Kerista, where members had multiple partners. To prevent them from choosing some over others, Jud created nightly rotation schedules of who would sleep with whom.
Prohibited were jealousy, favoritism, racism, hard drugs (marijuana use was allowed and frequent), and the word “love”.
Former members admit, in recently filmed interviews, that the non-preferentiality was a mistake: it’s human for a person to find a more desirable bedmate than another.
After two children were born into its ranks, the group began forcing men to undergo vasectomies.
We also discover Jud’s “Gestalt-O-Rama” sessions (sometimes the commune appears as a satirical representation of a 1970s San Francisco commune). In these gatherings, members deemed not sufficiently committed were publicly singled out and sometimes ousted.
Additionally, everyone had to generate income, either working outside the community or for one of Kerista’s community projects, which included housekeeping.
In the 1980s, Kerista entered the computer business by founding a company called Abacus which sold Apple products. Even more surprising than the start of such a business venture by the hippie group was the incredible success of Abacus. It became one of Northern California’s largest computer dealers, with customers including United Airlines and Pacific Bell.
However, the group’s rapid growth proved difficult for the members to manage.
Like other communities with utopian values, Kerista looked better on paper than in practice. In 1991, Kerista members dissolved the 20-year-old commune.
In recent interviews, former members hint at the reasons behind the breakup. Some cite the stress of running the IT business. Some focus on personality issues, many of which involve Jud.
While Jud, who died in 2009, was no Charles Manson or Jim Jones, his charisma obscured less desirable qualities. Former members describe him as a controlling egoist with a crazy religion and method of operation (which included using a Ouija board to guide himself) who was not as enlightened as he believed. A former female member notes that she was 17 when she joined Kerista, while Jud was 48. In these times of Me Too, she now sees the situation as problematic.
Chandler and Greenstone, whose directing credits include “Last Believer,” a documentary about a cult member, tackle the question of whether Kerista was, in fact, a cult. Some former Kerista members say that, at least to some extent, it was.
It’s an intriguing subject, which the filmmakers could have explored further. How do active thinkers become unconditional followers?
But the documentary still succeeds as a vivid portion of local history and a reminder of how the brightest and noblest ideals, when put into action, can fall prey to human nature.
It also scores points as an offbeat homage to the Bay Area’s distinction as a magnet for people seeking unconventional and nonconformist lifestyles.
Far Out West: in the Californian town of Kerista
Featuring: Former members of Kerista
Realized by: Travis Chandler, Dan Greenstone
Functioning time: 1 hour 42 minutes