What draws Jews to utopian communities? From socialist farms in the early Soviet days to kibbutzim and moshavim, Jews have often dabbled in communal living, sharing work, homes and ideals. Is it the egalitarian nature of a religion unmediated by elevated leaders or intercessors? Director Jonathan Berman (The Shvitz, SFJFF 1993) returns to the Festival with an engaging documentary (featuring a soundtrack by Elliott Sharp) that explores one of the boldest and best-known such experiments: the Black Bear Ranch in Siskiyou County, California, an extant commune that began in the 1970s. Founded on the idea of "Free Land for Free People," and financed by the largesse of a few good souls in Hollywood, Black Bear was created as an alternative to materialist society. At a time when the Vietnam War was raging and political activists were targeted by police, Black Bear was a refuge as well as a social experiment. Berman delves into the founding of the commune, probing the highs and lows of communal life, from shared clothes and early winters without enough food, to group sex, jealousy, midwifery in the backwoods and group childrearing. The film explores generations of Black Bear residents, including kids who thrived in an open community and those who craved structure. Featuring Black Bear members Harriet Beinfeld, Peter Coyote, Geba Greenberg, Efrem Korngold, Elsa Marley and Osha Neumann, among others, Commune is an elegantly crafted testament to people who dared to dream of a world remade.
Jonathan Berman has been involved in filmmaking for years, beginning his career as a stock footage researcher and assistant editor. He is director and producer of "The Shvitz," a film about the last traditional steam-baths in New York. His film "My Friend Paul," about his relationship to his bipolar best friend, was produced with ITVS, a part of the public broadcasting family. Berman is a graduate of McGill University (B.A.) and Bard College (M.F.A.) and was an artist-in-residence at Sarah Lawrence College. His work has been awarded grants from the NEA, NYSCA, the Jerome Foundation, and a video fellowship from NY State. Broadcasts include PBS, Sundance Channel, Trio Network, Discovery, NIK-TV in Holland, Danish TV, ARTE, and TV-Ontario. Screenings include Amsterdam Documentary Festival, SXSW, Slamdance, Karlovy Vary, Cork, Milan, the Hamptons and many others. Berman co-wrote the story for the US/France/Portugal co-production "On The Run," and was U.S. producer on Claudia Heuermann’s film "Sabbath in Paradise," which featured Harvey Pekar and John Zorn. He is currently finishing two feature film screenplays and developing more documentary projects.
Berman grew up at the tail end of the baby boom on the South Shore of Long Island. Merrick, NY is a place as far removed from a commune in rural California wilderness as any area in the W.S. might be. His World War II era parents, who struggled with life in the 50s and their growing 60s suburban community, stand together as the antithesis of the Black Bear Ranch commune. While not a personal work, "Commune" was created partially out of the dissidence between the filmmaker’s suburban upbringing and the seeming absolute "other" quality of the Black Bear Ranch commune. As the shooting progressed, the filmmaker, a "stranger in a strange land," noticed similarities between himself and his subjects -- for example, a bond in their common yearning for utopia. Most of the subjects, like the filmmaker, hold onto deeply optimistic views about the world and making it a better place, a belief that holds no particular basis in reality. "Tilt at windmills," one participant told us. "See what makes you bleed."