Tag Archives: Documentary Sunday

Cult of Personality- The Source Family (2012)

13 Sep

SourceFamily_2000x2841_1shtWhat started as a lucrative, hip vegetarian restaurant in late-1960’s LA, led to a religious way of life for over one hundred followers in the 70’s. The Source Family documentary tells the tale of Ya Ho Wha, or Father Yod, and his transformation from a straight-laced and allegedly violent businessman to a polygamous cult leader. A unique perspective emerges as past followers are interviewed in present-day, with many seeing no harm in the crazy life they used to lead under this cult leader. What started out with seemingly reasonable life habits- healthy and organic eating, commitment to above all else do no harm, communal living and positive thinking- devolves into power-hunger, community backlash, withdrawal from society, and as Father Yod’s ex-wife, Robin, so aptly put it, “a dirty old man on a lust trip.”

And despite the obvious manipulation at play within the Source Family, it is incredible to see how former members still speak so highly of the cult and its missions- many retaining their cult-given names (Sunflower, Isis, Electricity, all with the last name Aquarian) even more than 40 years after the Family’s dissipation.

Oh the fashion!

Oh the fashion!

The incredibly raw, archival footage maintained by photographer, official Source Family member, and appointed documentarian, Isis Aquarian, gives a first-hand look into the ceremonies, rituals, daily life, and philosophies of this group. It is quite surprising that documentation was even allowed, considering how it doesn’t always cast the group or its leader in a positive light. There is also some unique insight into why exactly someone would fall for cult mentality, as well as the societal pushes and pulls in the climate of the 1960’s and 70’s family. Most notably, during a time in which fatherly love and warmth was not the customary order of the day (think Mad Men), followers with daddy issues flocked to Father Yod’s side for love and guidance.

Plus, they formed a pretty interesting psychedelic rock band, that for some reason was allowed to play California high schools during their heyday. Nowadays, their records are a coveted find for serious collectors.

Check out this far out trailer for the doc, man:

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“He Lives in a Horde of His Own Personal Peculiarities” Burt’s Buzz (2013)

22 Feb
Burt Shavitz, namesake of Burt's Bees

Burt Shavitz, namesake of Burt’s Bees

I’ve been using Burt’s Bees products for as long as I can remember, but until I saw the documentary Burt’s Buzz, I had no idea that Burt was a real person. This documentary takes an intimate look into Burt Shavitz’s life as the poster “boy” of Burt’s Bees products. He travels all over the world, passing out samples and meeting superfans (yep, he has those). He is just as rustic as the photo to the left suggests.

Some Burt's Bees superfans in Taiwan

Some Burt’s Bees superfans in Taiwan

April Ludgate is similarly not amused

April Ludgate is similarly not amused

Trevor Folsom is known as “The Majordomo,” aka Burt’s handler, who makes sure he gets his packing in order and to his appointments on time, but mostly he helps Burt with things around his house and in his life on a daily basis. He is the darling of the documentary, in my opinion; he made me laugh until I cried. Folsom’s deadpan sarcasm and obvious annoyance with the one man pony show that is Burt would put April Ludgate (Dwyer) to shame. In the first shot in which he faces the camera, interview style, he states, “Burt’s a very interesting guy that I spend every day with. And sometimes I wanna throttle him,” and later he delivers my favorite lines, “He lives in a horde of his own personal peculiarities…He does not have the range of conception that allows him to see what he has become…He’s like Colonel Sanders, and he simply does not understand that.”

I will always love documentaries about peculiar people. They are uplifting alternatives to the depressing docs I watch about climate change, religious extremists, and hegemonic US international policy-making. Burt’s Buzz is one of the best I have seen in some time, although there is a bit of a sad twist to his story as well.

My favorite scene from the doc at the end of the following video: https://thescene.com/watch/presents/burt-s-buzz-meet-burt-and-his-majordomo-trevor

Witness to Jonestown (2008)

17 Feb

Witness to JonestownEven if you are not familiar with the story of the Jonestown Massacre, it is probable that you have heard of the metaphor, “Drinking the Kool Aid.” This metaphor refers to people blindly following a belief or philosophy, and like most metaphors, comes from a very literal event that once took place. While some contribute this saying to the Ken Kesey & the Merry Pranksters Acid Tests of the 1960’s, its more sinister referent is the Jonestown Massacre, during which 900+ people in a group known as the People’s Temple drank a lethal concoction of Kool Aid and cyanide led by their religious leader, Rev. Jim Jones. (Not to be confused with Brian Jonestown Massacre or this guy).

I believe in Jim Jones

Rev. Jim Jones founded the People’s Temple on a message of brother- and sisterhood that spanned all races and creeds.

While the story itself is unsettling and confusing, this movie adds to that feeling. It is easy to disassociate from the horror that is 900 people allegedly committing group suicide. I have always dismissed it as a cult full of mentally unstable people who made a decision that no rational-minded human being would make: to end their own lives and the lives of their family members at the behest of a maniac. But it becomes all too real when you hear the testimonials of the few members of People’s Temple who survived, witness the tense conditions at their commune in the jungle leading up to the moment that the Kool Aid was pushed upon the members of People’s Temple, and see the footage of the aftermath where piles of corpses include babies and children.

jonestown victims

A fraction of the more than 900 people who ended their lives in Jonestown, Guyana, some willingly and some forcibly.

This isn’t even the first documentary I have seen on the subject of the People’s Temple and the Jonestown Massacre, but it is the best one that I have seen. I assume that because it is an NBC made for TV movie, it contains exclusive footage that could not be found elsewhere, including some of the last moments of Jim Jones’ drug-addled mental unravelling at the People’s Temple compound in Guyana, and audio footage of the actual mass “suicide,” which still haunts me.

I still can’t imagine finding myself in the situation in which members of the People’s Temple found themselves, but hearing the surviving members speak of their experiences sheds a beam of light on the murky history of Jonestown and the People’s Temple. What is more disturbing and even less clear coming out of the movie are the motivations Jim Jones’ disturbed desire to exercise such lethal control over nearly one thousand people who loved and trusted him.

The Queen of Versailles (2012)

10 Feb

Welcome to the first edition of Documentary Sundays. For me, Sundays have always been good for sleeping in, eating brunch, enjoying mimosas and bloody marys (bloody maries?), and curling up on the couch to watch some of the myriad of documentaries in my netflix queue. Unfortunately, work obligations have cut into my early morning mimosas, but Sunday evening documentaries are still a time-honored tradition in my house. Won’t you join me?

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David and Jackie Siegel. And their taxidermied dog draped over the piano in the background. Yep. That classy.

This week’s DS doc is a guilty pleasure view of mine, The Queen of Versailles. It is basically one of those reality shows I always talk shit about, but as a whole movie, I somehow accept it. It’s one of those train wrecks that you can’t look away from. So please, take this recommendation with a grain of salt, and don’t expect to really learn anything from this documentary.

The Queen of Versailles has been called a “rags-to-riches-to-rags” story by critics, and I can’t think of a better or more clever way to explain it in a snappy tagline, so there you have it. This movie explores the rise and fall of David Siegel, the Father of the Timeshare. And when I say “fall,” the fall itself is still a work in progress. Siegel hasn’t quite hit rock bottom, but you may surmise that he isn’t quite done falling at the end of the documentary. You will most certainly look up his status in the business and financial world after you watch the movie.

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“Help. What do I do with this?”

You may be asking yourself, “if this movie is about David Siegel, why is it called the Queen of Versailles?” I wish I could tell you that in an attempt to save his failing business, Siegel throws the biggest French-themed drag show the world has ever seen. The truth is, in a nutshell, this title refers to Siegel’s wife, Jackie, and they are building a multi-million dollar mansion that is a replica of the palace at Versailles. Jackie is smart enough to get a computer engineering degree from MIT, but ditzy enough to do, well, all of the other things she does in this documentary. She has a gigantic litter of children that she doesn’t know what to do with, and clearly she and her husband both continue to pine for the days that she was Miss America. Jackie continues to feed her shopping addiction while David’s various resorts go belly-up and their bank account runs dry.

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Virginia Nebab, the Siegels’ nanny, stands in front of her “house,” on the property. And you’ll never believe what it used to be. Actually, you probably will.

So, a little something you might not know about me, I have my Master’s in International Studies. It may be for this reason that the most poignant element of this documentary is the storyline which follows the housekeepers and nannies of the Siegel household. I thought this documentary was going to be a huge joke, but the stories of these women who have lived thousands of miles away from home for decades to raise someone else’s children was just heartbreaking. It is not the ideal job, by any stretch of the imagination, but these women don’t complain. They just tell their stories point blank. I got anxiety listening to their sad stories just thinking about how David Siegel would probably fire them once he saw the documentary for making him look bad.

And even with all of that commentary, I haven’t even scratched the surface of The Queen of Versailles. So no worries, you have a lot to get out of watching this documentary. Just be sure to stock up on plenty of champagne and orange juice, because you’re going to need them it to dull the sting that is 21st century American capitalism, incarnate.