Dipping into San Francisco’s post-hippie decades, an engaging new documentary looks at a communal-living experiment that was productive and dynamic 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, free-loving ideals and an ability to attract media attention. (Footage includes clips from an appearance on Phil Donohue’s popular talk show.)
They cover lots of ground.
Kerista came into being in 1971 in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury district, which, just a few years prior, was hippiedom central.
The commune’s creator, John Peltz Presmont, also known as “Bro Jud,” was a transplant from New York’s beatnik scene who had founded a religion and ran the group somewhat like a religious society. He required Kerista’s 25 to 30 members — young idealists seeking alternatives to the rat race and to the nuclear family — to adhere to certain rules and beliefs.
They included poly-fidelity: Sex was a major part of life at Kerista, where members had multiple partners. To prevent them from choosing some over others, Jud created nightly rotation schedules stating who would be sleeping with whom.
Forbidden were jealousy, preferentialism, racism, hard drugs (marijuana use was allowed, and frequent), and the word “love.”
Former members acknowledge, in recently filmed interviews, that non-preferentiality was a fallacy: It’s only human for a person to find one bed mate more desirable than another.
After two children were born within its ranks, the group started requiring men to have vasectomies.
We also learn about Jud’s “Gestalt-O-Rama” sessions (sometimes the commune comes across as a satirical portrayal of a 1970s San Francisco commune). In these gatherings, members deemed not committed enough were publicly put in the hot seat and sometimes ousted.
Additionally, everybody was required to generate income, by working either outside of the community or for one of Kerista’s community projects, which included a housecleaning service.
In the 1980s, Kerista went into the computer business, starting a company called Abacus that sold Apple products. Even more surprising than the hippie group’s launch of such a commercial venture was Abacus’ amazing success. It became one of Northern California’s largest computer dealers, with clients including United Airlines and Pacific Bell.
The rapid growth of the group, however, turned out to be difficult for members to manage.
Like other communities with utopian values, Kerista looked more beautiful on paper than in practice. In 1991, Kerista members dissolved the 20-year-old commune.
In recent interviews, former members suggest reasons for the breakup. Some cite the stress of running the computer company. Some focus on personality issues, many of them involving Jud.
While Jud, who died in 2009, wasn’t a Charles Manson or a Jim Jones, his charisma obscured less desirable qualities. Former members describe him as a controlling egotist with a loopy religion and method of operation (which included using a Ouija board for guidance) who wasn’t as enlightened as he believed. A female former 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 filmmaking credits include “Last Believer,” a doc about a cult member, address the matter 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, one that the filmmakers could have more deeply explored. How do active thinkers become unquestioning followers?
But the documentary still succeeds as a vivid serving 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 a quirky salute to the Bay Area’s distinction as a magnet for people seeking unconventional, nonconformist ways to live.
Far Out West: Inside California’s Kerista Commune
Starring: Former members of Kerista
Directed by: Travis Chandler, Dan Greenstone
Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes