"Far Out West"
A documentary by Dan Greenstone '93 explores a California commune that blended countercultural ideals with business savvy to become a Silicon Valley success story.
Of the many surprises that turned up as Dan Greenstone ’93 made Far Out West, a documentary about the Kerista Commune of the 1970s and ’80s, the biggest wasn’t the California utopian group’s communal living, shared sexual partners, or countercultural ideals. It was the business savvy that made the commune a Silicon Valley success story.
“I didn’t see that coming,” says Greenstone, 50, who made the film with directing partner Travis Chandler. “It’s actually one of the reasons the group fell apart by 1991. They were going to business meetings in suits, working long days—which is so different from other groups from that time.”
Greenstone’s interest in nonfiction storytelling springs from his job as a high school history teacher in Chicago, where he lives with his wife and two children. He came to the Kerista story via his work on American Utopia, a narrative podcast about the Oneida Community— which, at its peak in the mid-1800s, had more than 300 members in upstate New York—and Last Believer, a 2018 film Greenstone and Chandler made about House of David, an early 20th-century utopian religious sect whose dedication to celibacy inevitably doomed the group’s existence.
Christian Goodwillie, the curator of special collections at Hamilton College, had given Greenstone and Chandler access to an archive of information on intentional communities as part of their research. “Christian suggested we look at the Kerista collections,” says Greenstone. “They’re like the Oneida Community, except they’re alive and will talk to you.”
Kerista was started in 1971 in San Francisco by John “Jud” Presmont as an intentional community modeled on ’60s-era Bay Area communes. Members took three-letter names (e.g., Geo, Dau, Luv), decided things as a group, agreed to a “sleeping schedule” rotation of sexual partners, shared the responsibilities of childraising, and pooled the income that came from the group’s business ventures, which ranged from a successful housecleaning service to Abacus Inc., an early seller of Apple Macintosh computers that brought in as much as $25 million a year. Despite its countercultural ideals and Jud’s charismatic influence on the group’s younger members, Greenstone notes that Far Out West is not another documentary about a cult. “The word ‘cult’ is frowned upon in the world of intentional communities,” he says. “It can be useful as a warning, but it’s a judging word that can obscure more than it illuminates.”
The clearest argument against Kerista being a cult comes from how many former members were happy to be interviewed for Far Out West and in general spoke positively about the experience. “No one was held against their will, there was no real abuse, and when you left they gave you money,” says Greenstone, who adds that one member used the phrase “Clark Kent Cult—it had some features of a cult, but it was pretty benign.” Several Keristans continue to live with or near each other, either as married couples or close neighbors.
Far Out West taps into a moment of interest in topics ranging from the Rajneeshpuram community in Netflix’s Wild Wild Country to investigations of QAnon, NXIVM (whose founder was sentenced to 120 years in prison for sex trafficking and racketeering), and more. “The Keristans were countercultural and had a critique of American society that rings pretty true,” says Greenstone. “I think a lot of people are looking around and feeling discouraged, so a way out like Kerista is tantalizing.”
Far Out West is available for rental on Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, and Vudu, among other platforms.