How did Conscious Light, a ‘documentary’ on cult leader Adi Da, end up getting shown at a public library? Anke Richter goes down the rabbit hole.
Give me a cult doco like Holy Hell, The Family or Wild Wild Country any day. I’d happily pay a lot more than the small koha they ask you for at Tūranga – Christchurch’s central city library that was re-opened last year – to watch an award-winning documentary about Adi Da Samraj, a former darling of new-age intellectuals and controversial sex guru who later fell from grace.
After a look into the Adi Da archives and having read an account by a former devotee, I’m intrigued. Adi Da’s teaching was called “crazy wisdom”. He claimed he brought down the Berlin Wall with his supernatural powers. So before I go to watch Conscious Light, I contact David Lane, a professor of philosophy at Mount San Antonio College in the US who’s studied Californian counter culture.
“Adi Da was one of the most fascinating and notoriously narcissistic cult leaders to have emerged from the 1970s,” he says. “He was indeed a bit crazy, but he was far from being wise.”
I can’t wait to see the film.
There’s a little hump on the way to my educational cult fix though. When I first see the documentary advertised, I stumble over the film’s subtitle The Divine Life and Revelation of Avatar Adi Da Samraj, which is quite a mouthful. Doesn’t quite have the same linguistic punch as Going Clear – Scientology and the Prison of Belief, which HBO had 160 lawyers working on. Divine? Avatar? Maybe Conscious Light is a brilliant mockumentary like Propaganda by New Zealand filmmaker Slavko Martinov.
I can’t find a single review for Conscious Light online, but it says its filmmakers, Peter Harvey Wright and Blythe Massey, have won five awards. Even if they’re not Emmys or Oscars, I’m sold. Maybe the library will even hold a critical discussion around the film? That makes up for the lack of popcorn there. Cult watch Sunday, bring it on!
Speaking of excitement, Lane also tells me that Adi Da had a constant hype machine around him. He had thousands of followers who even gifted him with an island in Fiji where he could hide when the going got tough. While he impressed intellectuals like Ken Wilber and Alan Watts, he was also accused of sexual and psychological abuse. The court cases were all over the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle in the 80s. “Some of them settled out of court for an undisclosed sum”, says Lane. Adi Da always denied the charges, and so did his fans. He died in 2008.
As I walk up to the first floor of Tūranga, the place is bustling, with people even sitting on the stairs. I’m not expecting mental health counsellors to be on hand as they were for the screening of Leaving Neverland at the Sundance Film Festival, but I’m also not expecting to be greeted by a book table with around a dozen publications by the divine avatar.
The Activities Room, which groups and individuals can rent for events, looks about flash as the rest of the new building. With all-black wood panelling with Māori carving, it’s a stylish venue for a turnout of around 30 people. I pick up a free booklet titled ‘We Are Consciousness Itself’ adorned with a little brush painting by Adi Da and take my seat. It starts to feel slightly off. The last time I went to an entertainment event embedded in spirituality with free literature to take home was the mid-winter concert at Gloriavale.
The scruffy man next to me tells me he was “with Osho” for 20 years and is ready for something new. If he’s a cult hopper, then this could be excellent homework. A grey-haired woman called Christine announces that this is the first public screening in New Zealand of a film that’s been “a long time in the making”. She’s flown down from Auckland as a member of Adidam – they’re the charitable organisation that spreads the gospel about Adi Da and shows Conscious Light at their centres. I’m still hoping for the best at this stage. Maybe they show it in order to work through a painful history? I come from Germany where we have a word for this process: Vergangenheitsbewältigung, “coming to terms with your past”.
As soon as the film begins, I’m taken back to Gloriavale where the audience had to sit through a tedious hagiography of the community’s late founder Hopeful Christian before the show starts. Just like the fundamentalist Christian, the wild Western Guru was allegedly an exceptional creature straight from birth. In fact, as the voiceover states: “Adi Da Samraj was born enlightened”. He was also born Franklin Jones in Queens, New York and later took on the names Da Free John, Bubba Free John, Da Love-Ananda, Da Kalki and more, but such mortal facts might be too dowdy for the narrative.
After the baby photos there are some cool visuals of da Jones’ early days when he emerged on the hippie scene as a provocateur – all silk shirts and flared pants, chanting, yoga moves, ecstatic bliss and long-haired beauties crying when he blesses them. He cackles with laughter or looks very serious, albeit stoned. I’m not quite getting the appeal, despite the endless praise his devotees are heaving on him in artfully filmed testimonials – 28 interviewees in total, one sounding more enamoured than the other. To sum it up in their words, Adi Da was “revealing the true state of all beings” and always into a “new phase of his work” (which might explain the many name changes that are never mentioned).
It’s nauseating, but I’ve seen enough cult docos to know that you have to set the precinct first for the shocking stuff to land soon after. Let the viewers sink into the soft ethnic cushions and frangipani petals that are sprinkled over the guru’s altar, lull them with sweet sitar music and let them soak up all the esoteric jargon before you wake them up with the hard facts, the victims and court files – boom.
But when? We’re over half an hour into the film, and there is no bang. We hear endlessly of “overwhelming love”, “truth itself”, “profoundness” and “manifesting”. But not a word, not even a new agey one, about Adi Da’s nine wives, fleecing his followers for money, or about the pornographic movies his groupies made. The orgies, the splitting up of couples and the sexual abuse he was accused of. All the well-recorded smear and smut that was also part of his gurudom is dowsed not in light and love, as to be expected, but is not mentioned at all. Not even hinted at, in a cookie-cutter defence like “unsubstantiated nasty rumours by disgruntled followers and jealous ex-lovers trying to pull him down”. I’m disappointed. Maybe this is not the Adi Da I googled, but a saint by the same name?
Or maybe this is not a documentary, but a promotional video.
Thankfully, it’s only an hour long and we’re getting to the end. “I appear to be a human person”, Adi Da tells us from the screen. I’m not too sure. He appears to be a reincarnation of Yoda from Star Wars, given his physique later in life. I’m impressed by his half-mane of long thin hair that seems a bit otherworldly too. After having “left the body” (ie: died) in 2008, the tearful testimonials finally stop and the lights come on. The love parade is over, and holy hell was it boring.
No one asks questions or looks puzzled by all this. Maybe everyone’s sedated. The old Osho guy next to me happily fills out the feedback form that Christine hands out. We can leave our name and email there to be added straight to the Adidam database. I can also tick a box for a free happiness retreat in Auckland and an upcoming videoconference and webinar.
One woman who just happened to be in the library lobby saw the sign for the film she knew nothing about and walked in. “Quite uplifting!” she says as we walk out. Someone else got their koha’s worth. I talk to a French backpacker at the book table. “My energy is so much higher now,” he beams. “It was inspiring.”
Tracy, the local Adidam organiser, is all smiles – a lovely bespectacled woman who never got to meet her teacher in the flesh. “I only got to him in 2000,” she says. I’m curious to hear how many hoops she had to jump through to rent this flash venue for such a devotional occasion. “Oh, you can do what you like in here, it’s that easy!” She hands me the name of the helpful librarian.
In fact, it only takes a few emails and you’re in. Did the helpful librarian ever check out Adidam? Was she familiar with the controversial guru at all?
“No” is the answer from Tūranga the next day. To put this to the test, I try and book the same room via their website, posing as the “Shepherds Foundation” who wants to show their pro-Gloriavale film about Hopeful Christian (I don’t put words like “sex offender” or “cult leader” in my email). The response is positive: “Many thanks for your enquiry about booking the Activity Room at Tūranga. Do you have some preferences of dates and times so that we can look into availability?”
Now I’m wondering what it takes to be rejected by this institution. I believe in free speech as much as I believe in discernment. When I ask Tūranga if they would let Scientology followers show videos about their founder L Ron Hubbard, the head of libraries and information comes back with a general answer. “Aside from the legal standards set down by the NZ Censor, Christchurch City Libraries does not censor free access to information. We aim to provide access to a wide range of viewpoints and perspectives.”
That sounds nice, but since watching Conscious Light, I’m curious now how an over-the-top gushfest could win so many awards, on top of winning over unsuspecting librarians?
The film lists five “Awards of Merit” from the “Impact DOCS Awards” in various categories like “Viewer Impact: Motivational/Inspirational”. None of the New Zealand documentary makers I talk to have ever heard of this festival, and they’ve entered a few. The competition only exists online and doesn’t screen any films. Instead, the films are judged in-house once you register with them for a fee.
There’s a warning on the NZ Film Makers Collective page about “fake film festivals” that hand out awards in countless categories. In the online community, Shooting People, a filmmaker specifically mentions the Impact DOCS Awards which sound similar to the reputable documentary funding scheme, Impact Partners, and hosts other dubious “sister festivals” on the same website. They wanted US$375 from him for a statuette. “I’d be sceptical if I had to pay for an award,” says Alex Behse, documentary producer for Monsoon Pictures in Auckland. Me too, but if you’re not sceptical that Adi Da is the divine incarnation of truth itself and brought the Berlin Wall down, then maybe not.
If the Impact DOCS Awards are bogus or bought, then what about the Audience Choice Award from the Awareness Film Festival that Conscious Light also bagged? I ask them and it’s a legitimate festival. There was a real screening in Los Angeles on October 7 last year with a sold-out audience of 200 people.
“This was not a festival award, it was purely by the viewers”, an organiser from the festival tells me. “The audience was given a ballot to score 1-4. It had the highest mean score.” Could that score have something to do with Adidam still having about a thousand members, mainly in America? The organiser says: “Of course they had their followers of the filmmakers or the movement attend, so obviously that will affect the outcome.”
An audience fix then? This is getting far more interesting than my excruciating movie session on Sunday. Since I missed out on a decent cult doco, I’m on the hunt for some ex-cult members and soon find Conrad Goehausen. He’s a retired American writer who was Adi Da’s personal astrologer and advisor and in the movement for 28 years. “Adi Da was the smartest guy I’ve ever met,” he admits. He says that the Adidam group – which the makers of Conscious Light belong to – have paid for favourable reviews by art critics of their master’s artwork before.
He also has the latest on the community in Fiji, which was battered by intense typhoons. It’s not looking too good at the “Mountain of Attention” sanctuary near Sacramento either since it was damaged by the recent forest fires. Goenhausen says the organisation has been on the decline since their leader’s death. “This movie is part of an effort to boost those flagging numbers, no doubt.” Their numbers in New Zealand are still small, only around 80.
Anyone wanting to participate in this recruitment effort, by all means, go and see Conscious Light at a cinema or community centre near you. It’s happening in Raglan on Thursday and on Waiheke in April. Don’t let me stop you, spiritual seekers.
But if you want to actually understand why idealistic people would join such a group, and how it screwed some of them up and spat them out, then listen to the podcast Dear Franklin Jones by Jonathan Hirsch –a personal account of being raised in the Adidam cult. His parents prayed in front of a life-size cardboard cut-out of Adi Da and made the boy write love letters to the guru until he untangled himself after 16 years. You can find an article about him at the Christchurch library.