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Black Bear Ranch, in Siskiyou County, located in northern California, became a commune in 1968. Berman's documentary tells the story of the people who formed the commune and what happened to them over the next decades. Most of the adults were in their twenties then, so now they are in their fifties and sixties. They started full of idealism and ideology, rejecting mainstream life and living separately from the world, and even escaping from the law after engaging in radical political protest. But once on the ranch, they had to cope with life there, living off the land -- although many of the women were still collecting welfare checks and some of the funds for the cost of living came from donations from wealthy sympathizers. There were still plenty of anti-authoritarian attitude and anti-bourgeois attitudes: at one stage it wasn't allowed to sleep with the same person for more than two nights in a row, because couples were not allowed. They made communal decisions about everything affecting the group, and they had many debates. Today, from the perspective of the early twenty-first century, this effort to fight the rise of suburban life looks pretty futile. Yet the Black Bear Ranch is still going today, and the people who lived there in the 1970s haven't renounced their values from that time, even if they no longer live there. They have found ways to lead alternative lives, and while they look back on the past with some wry smiles, they also speak of that time with great fondness. Maybe some of their ideas were silly, but they are not any sillier than the beliefs that people hold today, when they justify spending hours each day commuting back and forth to work on the freeway in their SUVs. The passion with which they lived and their questioning attitudes are admirable, and compared with the conservativism of so many youth today, the unconventional experimental lifestyle was a brave and wonderful experiment.
Commune consists mostly of people talking to the camera about the past, intercut with archival footage from home movies made around that time. Some of the old film is in bad condition, but it is still interesting. It's particularly interesting to see the children of the hold rebels talking about their youths; their lives were very unconventional, and in some ways they were unstable, which made them more difficult. Yet as adults, they speak very warmly about the past, and show no regret that they didn't lead more conventional lives. Occasionally the film is hard to follow because it tries to cover lots of detail in about 75 minutes, but it is not too hard to figure what's going on. The editing is done well, and music in the background is a combination of songs from the time and a beautiful score by Elliott Sharp. Commune is a fascinating documentary that will interest anyone interested in alternative lifestyles and the possibility of cultural revolution.
© 2007 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.
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