Growing Up Puerto Rican & Jewish on an 'American Commune' – Film Review

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Directed by sisters Nadine Mundo and Rena Mundo Croshere, American Commune will have its New York premiere this weekend during DOC NYC, the city’s largest documentary-only film festival.

In the sixties San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury was hippie central and home to a burgeoning counterculture. Amidst the growing discontent with mainstream society was a man who many saw as a spiritual guru. Stephen Gaskin held a Monday night class attracting over 1,500 followers every week and preached truth, selflessness, and egalitarianism — spiritual teachings that combined his own unique mix of Christianity and world religions. Then, came the idea of building an alternative community, a social experiment of sorts, that stood in stark contrast to American middle class society. This is how The Farm, a commune in rural Tennessee, was born.

A ragtag group of 300 hippies drove across the country, from San Francisco to Tennessee, in brightly painted vans and old school buses until arriving in Summertown. Amongst the hippies and dropouts were Jan and Jose Mundo an,“unlikely coupling of a Puerto Rican from the Bronx and a Jewish girl from Beverly Hills.” They would spend over a decade living on The Farm, under a vow of poverty, raising their children and, “trying to change the world.”

Led by Gaskin, The Farm was founded in 1970, based on a model of communal living. They grew their own food, threw all their money into a community pot and provided health care, housing, and clothing to anyone that walked on to the commune. To outsiders it seemed like a crazy, utopian idea that was destined to fail. Nadine and Rena Mundo, who were born on the commune along with their brother Miguel, never knew anything different. To them, it was neither crazy nor utopian  – it was their home. Even as a young kid, without having experienced life outside The Farm, Nadine sensed that where she lived was special, “I remember riding my bike around with my best friends in the middle of the night during the summer. It was pitch black and you could see all of the stars. I knew that the sense of freedom and safety we had was totally unique to being kids on this commune.”

In its heyday The Farm grew to house over 1,500 people and was the largest commune in the United States. But, over time resources became more and more scarce. And, the Mundo’s marriage began to fall apart. Though painful, they decided to leave the commune, separately. There was a mass exodus from The Farm starting in the eighties and it included Nadine, Rena, and their mom who moved to their grandparents’ luxury apartment building in Santa Monica, California.

Life off The Farm wasn’t an easy transition for pre-teen Nadine and Rena. On The Farm there was no T.V., they didn’t have makeup, eat meat and had to share everything they owned. They struggled to fit in and kept their past a secret from their new friends. “The outside world was so foreign it might as well have been another country. For a long time we were just trying to blend in with mainstream society and didn’t tell anyone where we came from because of the negative reactions we would get. When we were kids we felt like when people think of communes they think about a bunch of crazy hippies running around naked in the woods. It wasn’t a good look for us in Los Angeles.”

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Fast forward a couple of decades and the Mundo sisters, having spent their childhood never watching television, found themselves working for Viacom, one of the biggest media conglomerates, as directors for MTV. It was this paradox that sparked the idea to make a documentary. Rena explains, “We were working at MTV in the heart of commercialism and after a while we became dissatisfied with our work and wanted to do something more meaningful. We started talking about where we came from and wanted to understand what our parents were doing in the backwoods of Tennessee and how they, along with hundreds of others, managed to create a massive socialist society.”

Rena and Nadine didn’t have much money to make American Commune. They mostly self-financed with some support from grants and their own cash. Not having money for a crew forced them to quickly learn new skills. “The silver lining of this is that we taught ourselves how to shoot because we didn’t have enough funds to hire a DP.” It turns out, this was the right choice.

The footage they shot of themselves — riding in a car to the commune, putting on make-up, looking through old family pictures and reminiscing about family stories with their mom — feels like you are watching home movies. Not the shaky kind that make you feel nauseous but the type that capture intimate moments no outsider could ever get. It’s such a deeply personal film but at the same time tells the story of the thousands of people who passed through The Farm.

The Farm attracted a lot of attention and was often visited by news crews. Nadine and Rena used these news stories to add another layer to the visual look of their doc. “A lot of the archival footage we have in our film was shot by the major networks, including ABC, NBC, CBS and BBC. Most of that footage is gorgeous, it was back when an entire film crew would go out and shoot an hour of b-roll in 35mm. It gives our film a distinctly original look that we just fell in love with. It really brings you into our commune during its peak.” The blending of what they shot themselves together with the archival footage creates a beautifully laid out montage of the public and private life that many experienced on the commune.

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