Vet documentarian John McDonald's "The Ghost Mountain Experiment" revisits "the first hippie family," a clan that went "back to nature" in the California desert and won a loyal readership for exalting their utopian lifestyle during the Great Depression.

Vet documentarian John McDonald’s “The Ghost Mountain Experiment” revisits “the first hippie family,” a clan that went “back to nature” in the California desert and won a loyal readership for exalting their utopian lifestyle during the Great Depression. The truth was somewhat different, making for a compelling mix of archival materials and latter-day testimony. Fest play should be followed by sales to pubcasters and arts channels.

Both Marshal South (an Australian outbacker turned American West rover) and spouse Tanya (daughter of Ukrainianemigres and onetime Wall Street secretary) wrote freelance articles detailing the sweet, simple life shared with their three children atop a mountain in California’s Colorado Desert area from 1932 on.

But the alleged Garden of Eden simplicity and harmony that seduced magazine readers nationwide was something of a sham. The Souths claimed to live like Native Americans of yore, but as various experts point out here, no tribe would’ve been dumb enough to settle on a mountaintop sans water source beyond scarce rainfall — insufficient to sustain livestock, crops or even humans.

In truth, the family very much depended on civilization for food, water (during droughts), and the print-mag payments that could fund essential purchases. The adobe house they built (now a skeletal ruin) had a factory-tin roof protecting it from the elements. They even had a car, albeit one parked on the last dirt road several miles away.

Marshal South carefully omitted such realities from his public image. In Julian, the nearest town (14 miles away), he was known as a moocher, while the wife and half-naked children he seldom took along on supply-pickup trips were regarded as pitiable curiosities. (Interviews with Julian residents who were youths at the time are quite amusing.)

When the family was displaced by the military — which used Ghost Mountain as a WWII bombing test site — they were given temporary shelter at a ranch closer to town, with a river running nearby. This relative luxury soured Tanya on returning to the mountain, where she thought herself and kids forced to live a hard life by the single-minded Marshal. The marriage deteriorated, hastened by his affair with a townie woman.

Eldest son Rider South is frank yet tactful about these formative experiences, younger sister Victoria more critical. Notably, middle sibling Rudyard not only refused to participate in the filmbut changed his name long ago to kill any association with the family’s now largely forgotten mythos.

Plentiful vintage photos and limited film footage of the Souths in their “utopian” heyday are interwoven with d.p. Stuart Asbjornsen’s beautiful color shots of the desert locale, plus colorful interviews with academics, biographers, locals and the surviving Souths themselves.

The Ghost Mountain Experiment

Production

A John McDonald production. Produced by John McDonald. Directed by John McDonald. Screenplay, Lydia McDonald.

Crew

Camera (color, Sony HD cam), Stuart Asbjornsen; editor, Will Bigham; music, Groove Addicts. Reviewed at Cinequest Film Festival, San Jose, March 4, 2007. Running time: 76 MIN.

With

Rider South, Victoria South, Bill Worden, Lucile South, Diana Lindsay, Richard Halsey.
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