MacGuffin Indie Film Review – Back to the Garden

Indie Film Review – Back to the Garden

In 1988, filmmaker Kevin Tomlinson took a road trip that led him through the Okanogon Valley in eastern Washington state. There, he came across many dozens of people who might be described as hippies, taking part in a “healing gathering” in the middle of a picturesque wide open field. The participants at this gathering represented a culture of people who had chosen to live and to raise their families “off the grid,” so to speak. Tomlinson recorded many of them speaking eloquently, not of free love and getting high, as the cliché view might be, but of topics such as an individual’s impact on and relationship with the planet, finding personal happiness, and the best way to raise a child.

Almost twenty years later, Tomlinson set out on a mission to track down the people he’d met in 1988, and see whether they were staying true to the ideals of their younger selves. The film that he made from these dual sets of interviews is Back to the Garden, which airs tonight on KCTS as part of its Reel NW series. The half dozen or so people focused on in the film have all held true to at least some of their values, in varying but always meaningful ways. Whether there were others that Tomlinson initially encountered in 1988 who have moved out of this lifestyle and didn’t want to participate in the documentary, the film doesn’t say. Those he does feature are more than adequate characters for holding our attention.

The unbridled candidness of all of the featured interviews makes for a very engaging experience. We hear Tomlinson’s subjects speaking of how the choices they made raising children led to both rewarding and difficult relationships; how they’ve struggled (or not) with staying on the fringes of a capitalist economy; how they might have chosen to suppress certain beliefs at certain times in favor of experiencing something new. No interview in this film bores.

The stand-out character of this enterprise is Jeffrey Stonehill, who, in his 2008 incarnation, lives in a school bus with no electricity or water on Lopez Island, a couple of hours north of Seattle. He has apparently taught himself multiple languages and musical instruments, and works as a tutor in these areas. As the camera follows him around the small community, he seems known and liked. To my (and, I am sure, the filmmaker’s) delight, he spouts wonderful quotes outlining his worldview, among them: “One sperm joined with one egg and made you. Congratulate yourself—you’re part of a miracle. You make yourself less miraculous by believing in these childish personal gods,” and “Of all the creatures on this sweet, sequined, spangled garden, only one of them is dumb enough to pay rent.” He is a font of bumper sticker-worthy goodness.

Other interviews involve some of the children of those who were at the 1988 healing festival, and hearing their experiences builds a fuller view of this lifestyle. One daughter, grown and with a child of her own, sums up the free love pillar of the hippie movement: “I really feel like it was a really great deal for the guys, and that women were left to kind of bear the burden.” It’s a thoughtful, not angry, observation. Additionally, in a smart, fun move, the film doesn’t address the question of the ultimate hippie lifestyle choice—intense marijuana use—until its last third or so.

I’m not sure whether or not I’m the target audience for this film, or even if it truly aims to have one. I tend to think it could be enjoyed by pretty much anyone. Personally, I’m a liberal, environmentally-concerned Seattleite, but one who owns dozens of pairs of shoes and is pretty concerned about increasing the quality of her home theater set-up. And while I wish them well in their endeavors, Tomlinson’s declaration that he and his wife are going to build their own solar-powered yurt inspires no similar dream in me. But I enjoyed spending time with his subjects very much. While I sort of wish the film had taken a broader scope in its assessment of what it means to choose an “off the grid” lifestyle, what we get is a very enjoyable 70 minutes spent in the company of captivating people, who don’t try too much to speak for larger movements or philosophies. They just have something to say, and strive to walk the talk. And those are my favorite sorts of people.

You can see the film tonight (1/27) on Reel NW.

Final Grade: B+

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