American Commune: Hot Docs Review

American Commune - H - 2013
The first-person lens deepens this well-researched account of a countercultural experiment.

Returning to the Tennessee commune where they grew up, sibling documentarians explore the idealism of an era.

Toward the beginning of American Commune, the debut feature of sisters Rena Mundo Croshere and Nadine Mundo, Nadine says that she’s unsure “how to present it to the world.” She’s talking about their childhood at The Farm, a patch of rural Tennessee that a group of San Francisco hippies turned into the largest and longest-lasting commune in the United States. 

The filmmakers, who have extensive experience in reality TV, have found an engaging and affecting way to present their story to filmgoers: as a tender family portrait; a chronicle of their return to The Farm as young adults; a remembrance of early years that were idyllic and complicated, like most people’s, but also strikingly different; and a rich archival excavation of a particularly hopeful moment in American culture. A world premiere selection of Hot Docs, the documentary could tap into perennial interest in the period for theatrical play in select markets. 

In 1971, the Mundo sisters’ parents were among the 300 founding members of The Farm, the culminating project of a seven-month bus caravan from the Bay Area to Nashville. Led by Stephen Gaskin, a Marine turned spiritual teacher (whose spouse, the celebrated midwife Ina May Gaskin, is the subject of the recent doc Birth Story), the group consisted mainly of college kids with no survival skills. Pooling their money, they brought their mix of New Testament simplicity and om chants to the Bible Belt, befriending the locals and learning how to raise crops. Vegan before it was fashionable, they turned their Summertown acreage into an organic farm and set up a state-certified school. 

Ultimately, The Farm’s income wasn’t enough to sustain it — and the film makes clear that a fruitless but relentless FBI investigation didn’t help its standing vis-à-vis banks. Though its outreach program, Plenty, continues as a domestic and international humanitarian organization (it was instrumental in providing relief to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina), the commune itself couldn’t survive the financial strain or internal dissension. The Mundos left in 1985, two years after The Farm underwent an elemental restructuring. 

In addition to their own reminiscences, the directors speak with Summertown locals, original members of the commune — including the Gaskins and organic farming expert Michael O’Gorman — and a few of their fellow Farm-kid contemporaries. One young woman recalls finding a wrapper from forbidden gum and inhaling the exotic aroma for days; another admits the shame she felt for many years about her parents and “the whole hippie thing.” Through these interviews and those with the filmmakers’ long-divorced parents — she came from a well-to-do Beverly Hills Jewish family; he was a Puerto Rico-born Bronx boy — a sense of entangled idealism and naivete emerges. 

Gaskin’s vision of natural, authentic living called for vows of poverty and banned jewelry, makeup, alcohol and pharmaceutical birth control. The group espoused antiviolence but also, unrealistically, forbade anger. And though the shared child-rearing (and breast-feeding) made kids a priority, their emotional needs weren’t figured into the equation when it came to group marriage, a practice that was encouraged but not required. 

The culture shock of the filmmakers and others like them when they left The Farm is hard to fathom. But American Commune paints a vivid and insightful picture, making incisive use of new material and well-chosen archival footage gathered during seven years of research. The Farm was well-documented in its time; in addition to small-screen coverage by everyone from Walter Cronkite to Phil Donahue, the directors unearthed a Yale student film and an independent Swedish documentary from the ’70s. Acoustic tunes serve as apt complement to the visual mix. 

In the backlash against the ’70s in general, and its social experiments in particular, the word “hippie” has become shorthand for whatever went wrong, and “commune” is often considered synonymous with cults, mind control, dark doings and damaged kids. The flip side of that sort of demonizing is the tendency of some observers to romanticize the period’s countercultural impulses. As a response to both types of oversimplification, American Commune is a compellingly complex look back. If the scope of its investigation is limited, its depth of feeling is not. And when one of the Mundo sisters faces a personal crisis, the response from former Farm members most movingly demonstrates that a sense of community endures.

Venue: Hot Docs

Production company: Mundo Films

Directors: Rena Mundo Croshere, Nadine Mundo

Writer: Rena Mundo Croshere

Producers: Rena Mundo Croshere, Nadine Mundo

Directors of photography: Nadine Mundo, Rena Mundo Croshere

Music: Lucas Revolution, Jeffery Alan Jones

Editors: Nadine Mundo, Michael Levine

No MPAA rating, 91 min.