‘Blockbuster’ commune movies

Still from La Cecilia

Back in 1979 a group of us from People in Common, the small community I was living at in Burnley in East Lancashire, went down to Bristol for a Co-operatives Fair – this was something of a heyday period for new worker co-operatives, having had backing from Tony Benn in the Labour government. We were in the early days of trying to set up a building co-op as a steady financial base for the community. In the evening, after the speeches, workshops and the chance to meet other co-operators, there was food, a bar and a double bill of films; La Cecilia followed by Winstanley.

La Cecilia is based on the story of a colony set up in Brazil in 1890 by a group of Italian anarchists. The colony lasted for about three years, and the film explores the development and eventual collapse of the community. It was in Italian with no subtitles and I remember the blackout in the hall was not that good so it was a real struggle to follow, but I was intrigued that here was the story of communal living on the ‘Big Screen’ – well actually quite a small screen in a big hall with rather uncomfortable chairs. I have kept an eye out for a chance to see it again, and in 2008 it was released on DVD by Doriane Films. There are a couple of clips from the film on YouTube if you want a taster.

The other film, Winstanley, made in 1975 in the UK by Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo and based on the 1961 David Caute novel Comrade Jacob, chronicles the story of the English Civil War Diggers and their leader/spokesperson Gerrad Winstanley. Shot in black and white and made with almost an entirely amateur cast, the film has attained something of a forgotten historical cult movie status in the intervening years.

“The most mysteriously beautiful English film since the best of Michael Powell….and the best pre-twentieth century historical film I can recall.”
Jonathan Rosenbaum, Film Comment

Great efforts were made to make the film as historically accurate as possible. Armour used in the battle scenes was actual armour from the 1640s, borrowed from the Tower of London and rare breed animals were used for authenticity. Links were also made with the counterculture of the time with ‘real life’ Digger Sid Rawle being cast as leader of a group of 17th Century Ranters.

“Casting the Ranters — an extraordinary sect opposed to Winstanley’s philosophy, and one of many who split the radical movements of the 17th century — was straightforward. We had contacted a group calling themselves the New Diggers, and their spokesman, Sid Rawle, became most enthusiastic about the film … “Although I call myself a Digger,” he said, “I identify more with the Ranters.” He agreed, therefore, to play the leading Ranter and to cast the others of his retinue himself. Though we had set the introduction of the Ranters in the village, before they reach the Diggers’ commune, we were forced to delay their appearance when Sid Rawle became involved in organizing the first Windsor Pop Festival…..

….The cast and crew of Winstanley endured everything from violent rainstorms to Force 10 gales without a murmur of complaint. They stayed with the film to the very last moment, and their fascination with the period and the subject made the whole experience profoundly rewarding. They are the reason we can still look back at the period of production as something of a pastoral idyll, suffused with nostalgia.”
Winstanley and the Historical Film: An Interview with Kevin Brownlow” 1980

I met Kevin Brownlow when we gave a talk together at the wonderful Horse Hospital just off Russell Square in Bloomsbury in 2001 where he gave a fascinating account of the trials and tribulations of the making of the film and he has since published his account in a book entitled Winstanley: Warts and All.

Winstanley Poster for British Film Festival opening and the free showing for ‘the Alternative Society Diggers, Squatters and Communards’
Winstanley Poster

The film was the opening feature at the British Film Festival at the National Film Theatre in November 1975 . Two weeks after the festival on Dec 2nd there was a free showing of the film for ‘the Alternative Society Diggers, Squatters and Communards’. Winstanley was reissued on DVD and Blu-ray in 2009 by the British Film Institute (BFI) who funded the original project.

After these two movies about historical communities there followed pretty much two decades where communal living fell off the film makers radar. Apart perhaps for the 1985 Harrison Ford movie Witness that takes place mostly at an Amish community, it wasn’t until the early years of the 21st Century that a new batch of movies that featured communal living started to appear in Europe and the USA. First to appear in 2000 was Together  by Swedish director Lukas Moodysson — a satirical bittersweet comedy set in a 1975 Swedish commune. I saw it with my partner when it was released in the UK at the Dukes Theatre in Lancaster and remember us both laughing out loud at particular scenes whilst the rest of the audience just sat their somewhat bemused by some of the goings on – but the portrayal of 1970’s commune life was so accurate at times that we could both exclaim afterwards “I have been at meetings like that.” or ” That character was a deadringer for so-and-so at – ___________ (insert commune that we had visited/lived at in the UK)”

2005 saw the release of The Commune, a feature length documentary about the Black Bear Ranch in Siskiyou County, California founded in 1968.The film uses archive footage, photographs, documents, newspaper articles, and interviews with people who lived or still live there tell the commune’s story from the first freezing cold winter through to a late 70s crisis when a cult-like group moved into the commune.

The Commune has been followed by further feature length  documentary films about radically different intentional communities. Dreams of Damanhur released in 2011 features the astounding Federation of Damanhur in Northern Italy.  Founded in 1975, the Federation has some 1,000 citizens and extends over 500 hectares of territory throughout Valchiusella and the Alto Canavese area in Italy, at the foothills of the Piedmont Alps. Famed for it’s Temples of Humankind secretly dug out of the centre of a mountian (The Eighth Wonder of the World?) the Federation has been responsible for the regeneration of the surrounding area.

Damanhur entrance
The Amish Poster







In 2012 documentary makers American Experience released The Amish

An extraordinarily intimate portrait of contemporary Amish faith and life, the film questions why and how the Amish, an insistently separatist and communal culture, have thrived within one of the most open, individualistic societies on earth. It asks what our fascination with the Amish says about deep American values. And The Amish looks at what the future holds for a community whose existence is so rooted in the past.

“With unprecedented access to the Amish built on patience and hard-won trust, the film is the first to deeply penetrate and explore this profoundly attention-averse group…. this was the most difficult that we’ve ever made,”  Mark Samels, Executive Producer of The Amish.

2012 also saw Hollywood give a passing nod to communal living with the fairly high profile release of Wanderlust starring Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd, as a married couple who after the economy crashes down on their dreams in New York try to escape modern society on a hippie commune in Georgia called Elysium. See the trailer here

Wanderlust met with some critical success but was something of a box office flop. If you want a more realistic portrayal of an American hippie commune from the 1970’s  then catch American Commune which tells the story of The Farm in Tennessee.

None of these films (Winstanley aside) shows life on a commune in the UK or tells the story of any of the hundreds of intentional communities set up here in the last four decades. Back in 2002 rumours circulated of a major movie to be made based on the early years of the Findhorn Community in Scotland.To be called The Garden of Angels, it was going to made in a new complex of studios planned to be built at Milton of Leys in Inverness and various Hollywood stars’ names were talked about being involved. It was reported that Meryl Streep and Sam Neill were penciled in to play Eileen and Peter Caddy alongside Glenn Close as Dorothy Maclean and Billy Connolly as the caravan park owner. Julia Roberts, Robin Williams, Sigourney Weaver and Sir Sean Connery were all said to have been approached to appear in the film. The movie project had been in the pipeline for some time. Filmmaker Ian Merrick had been working on the project since the early 1980s when he had concluded an exclusive film rights deal with Peter Caddy. After visiting Findhorn and talking with members he developed a screenplay.

“This film is about faith and hope, and that the best of the human race can come out when they have faith and belief in what they’re doing.” Neither the movie nor the Inverness Film Studios have materialised as yet. So until the Garden of Angels finds its own guardian angel to fund it and bring us our own communal blockbuster we will have to make do with less glitzy, but by no means less engaging films such as Follow the Rainbow to Findhorn.


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