It’s not on his resume, but filmmaker Jonathan Berman is really an anthropologist. Each of his three acclaimed documentaries, “The Shvitz,” “My Friend Paul” and his latest, “Commune,” is an examination of a small self-selected community.
“Oh, totally,” he said when asked if he sees these as ethnographic films. “I was working on the trailer for ‘Commune’ for YouTube, and I was thinking about how tribal and innocent it seemed.”
“Commune,” which opens Nov. 10, is a fascinating and frequently funny look back at the Black Bear Ranch, one of the most successful of the communes begun in ’60s America. Located in an abandoned mining area in the remote wilderness of Siskiyou County, Black Bear has managed to stay alive long after the word “hippie” became an antique.
Although Berman was too young to have experienced the hippy movement first-hand — “My sister was part of that era,” he said, laughing — he felt an instant affinity for the subject, in part because of his family background. Although he grew up in Merrick, Long Island, as a classic Reform Jewish suburbanite, Berman’s dad was a product of an earlier, tougher brand of Jewish activism.
“My father, Herb Berman, ran a local newspaper, the Brooklyn Graphic,” Berman said. “He was very community-minded. It’s a whole theme, the whole Jewish thing of people always looking for justice and utopia. He was always looking for tzedakah.”
The founders of Black Bear were, coincidentally, also pre-hippie utopians with a strong strain of Jewish radicalism in their lives.
“The first time I went up to Black Bear, I was struck by how familiar it all seemed,” Berman recalled. “Then I figured out — look at who the key people were: Richard Marley, half-Jewish, an ex-longshoreman from Brooklyn and labor organizer; Osha Neuman, Herbert Marcuse’s stepson and an East Coast radical; Efrem Korngold, whose father, Murray, helped found the L.A. Free Clinic; Harriet Beinfeld, who was an anti-war organizer. They were all red-diaper babies, interested in social justice, Jewish.”
They were also a little paranoid about being back in the glare of the media spotlight, even if the media in question was an independent documentary filmmaker and the spotlight was more like a flashlight.
“When we first got there it was [in the middle of] a reunion, and everyone was in a circle with someone blowing a ram’s horn — heck, it was a shofar,” Berman said. “And they immediately said to us, ‘Who are you? You’re the media. You’ll get it all wrong.'”
Given the coverage that such communities have attracted since the ’60s, ranging from active hostility to sniggering prurience, “They have good reason to be slightly paranoiac about the media,” Berman concedes.
But he stayed and stayed and finally was told, “You’re pretty good, you stuck around.”
The result, as in his first film, “The Shvitz,” a loving portrait of the vanishing world of the Jewish bathhouses, is an acute and sympathetic picture of a small but hardy group of people who come together as a self-created community in the face of the stresses of contemporary life. And, as in that film, Berman found himself with not merely a subject but also friends and, as he said with a chuckle, “co-conspirators.”
Much as the bathhouses have all but disappeared, most of the ’60s communes have faded from view. But there are still a few people up at Black Bear, the land itself is now in a perpetual trust and, most important, the animating spirit of the commune lives on in its now-dispersed members.
“Many of them remain activists,” Berman said. “Some of the families stayed in the area and became the primary motivators behind the Salmon River Restoration Council, which is a major environmental group up there. The ones who went back to the cities are involved in community organizing, public health work, legal aid work. There’s a palpable feeling of people keeping the faith even after they left.”
Berman feels a bit of that himself.
“To be frank, I haven’t even disassociated myself yet,” he confesses. “I have to move on to the next film. I’d like to move on to something else so I can come back [to the people from Black Bear] as a person, not as a filmmaker.”
“Commune” opens Friday, Nov. 10 at the Laemmle Grande Theater, 345 S. Figueroa St.
Click the big arrow to play the trailer for ‘Commune