Some dads volunteer as the umpire for your little league baseball team in order to bond with you, others take you on a bicycling trip to a volcano when you’re 17 and provide you with the right stuff to get you high for the first time. For filmmaker Kaleo La Belle, the latter experience was the only time he ever saw his father until his 34th birthday, when he was inspired to reunite with the stranger he knew as “Dad.” It is this reunion that is captured in “Beyond This Place,” where Kaleo travels from Maui to Portland, Detriot and San Francisco to better understand the enigmatic existence of a man named Cloud Rock La Belle.
Last Sunday night at the The Castro Theatre, the documentary was screened (to the delight of many hip 20-somethings) along with a live soundtrack performance by musicians Sufjan Stevens and Ray Raposa. The film was shown in San Fran as part of a four-city tour, after its release in several international film festivals. It was up on the huge screen that the secrets behind Cloud Rock La Belle’s charming smile were revealed.
Being described by one of his buddies as a legend in a Maui hippie commune, Cloud Rock was a son of the Beatnik generation and a pioneer for the hippie movement, living large in a haze of LSD experimentation and couple swapping afternoons back in the ‘60s. As Kaleo finds him today, Cloud Rock still lives a dazed (yet coherent) life full of shroom-chocolates, early morning bong hits and bicycling expeditions. He is, what they say, “chilling hard” in his 70s, living in Portland and breathing in the fresh scent of freedom from the pine trees of the great Northwest.
Determined to finally make the connection that had been absent for 30 years of his life, Kaleo trained for six months in order to bike with his father to Spirit Lake at the bottom of Mount St. Helens. On this trip, along with interviews with friends and family, Kaleo ventures to ask the hard questions of where Cloud Rock was in those last several decades. Continuously, Cloud Rock says, “I love you” to deflect some of the more personal questions. Kaleo maintains his composure behind the lens even when Cloud shares that ultimately, children have to live with the parents they get, that they chose those parents when they were in spirit form.
However difficult it is to see such denial, Cloud Rock can still endear with his earnest belief in living life by every moment. He has nothing to hide from the camera, especially coming from his stance that he has done nothing wrong. He is a man in search of personal freedom, of independence, unaware of how this freedom has infringed on the freedoms of those around him.
Kaleo does an inspiring job of compiling these interviews, interspersed with breathtaking biking montages, including shots of the forests of Oregon and Washington flashing by the camera. Revealed in the Q&A held after the screening, Kaleo explained how most of the bicycling footage of the 500-mile journey to Spirit Lake were taken while he biked with his left hand and filmed with his right. Still, some of the most powerful moments caught on film are lingering shots of Cloud Rock’s face in silence, with every wrinkle and expression magnified for close examination.
All the while during the film, Sufjan Stevens and Raymond Raposa (of Castanets) provided a seemingly perfect live performance that twanged and reverberated off the walls. There, to the left of the screen, the audience could see Stevens and Raposa play a myriad of instruments, including flute, guitar, organ and banjo, never missing a beat. The intimacy and care apparent in the soundtrack is indicative of pre-existing relationship between Sufjan and Kaleo. The two grew up together and had already collaborated on the documentary “Crooked River” back in 2006, on Sufjan’s own life.
“Beyond This Place” is an appreciated invitation from Kaleo to take part in bonding with his father. He reveals his love for Cloud Rock, a man he may not entirely understand, but can respect for his honesty, charm and unwavering love for life. This is where the film succeeds: In its patience to glean positive inspiration from one man’s life.