Before this, any of this, Isis was not Isis. She was Charlene. She lived in the District in the 1960s, in the prim kind of boarding house that required residents to trill, “Man in house!” if they had a visitor with XY chromosomes.
It seems like cosmic eons have passed since then. “We lived whole lifetimes,” Isis says. She’s 70 now. “We lived incarnations.”
Lifetimes ago, a Washington socialite became a spiritual bride in a radical social experiment that succeeded wildly in some ways and ended long before its followers expected. Life and death and Washington move on, but Isis Aquarian, nee Charlene Peters, remains the keeper of the strange vibrations that pulsated through Southern California 40 years ago.
A new documentary
There is a new documentary made with Isis’s help — a feature-length film called “The Source,” screening Friday and Saturday at Washington’s Silverdocs film festival. The commune known as the Source Family always did seem groomed for prime time, with its industrious work habits, healthy bodies and high-hippie fashion, the way members cheekily upturned societal norms while wearing serene expressions on their doe-dazed eyes. At its peak, the Family had 150 members. They lived in a sprawling mansion in Los Angeles paid for by profits from the Source restaurant, the health-food haven frequented by Warren Beatty, Julie Christie and John Lennon, where Woody Allen said goodbye to Diane Keaton in “Annie Hall” over a plate of mashed yeast.
When filmmaker Jodi Wille began researching the members of the Family, she noticed that “they all had this spark. This spark that said they knew something I didn’t.”
Much of the footage is of Father Yod, a man the camera can’t seem to look away from, not that you’d want it to. He cuts an endlessly fascinating figure: a judo champion, a businessman, an early proponent of organic eating and health-food restaurants. He was rumored to have robbed a bank, and he definitely killed someone with his bare hands. It made the papers. Self-defense. Judo.
Most of the photographs and audio were provided by Isis, who was — in a title that invokes the improbable organizational skills of the freewheeling commune — the Source Family’s official archivist.
From Florida to D.C.
Her father was a documentarian, a man employed by the Air Force to catalogue American missions in World War II. In family lore, he was supposed to film the bombing of Hiroshima from inside the Enola Gay but had an earache that day — a malady for which he never stopped being grateful. By the time Isis was in high school, they’d settled in Florida, close to Cape Canaveral, where her dad was filming NASA projects. She was a cheerleader, a beauty queen, the kind of girl who instinctively knew how to click with a scene the minute she walked into the room.