Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple

Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple (2006): United States – directed by Stanley Nelson

Not rated by the MPAA – contains language, disturbing content, some sexual dialogue, violence, mature themes

There are a lot of horror movies out there, and I’ve seen my share of the no-budget and the classic and the epic.  Some have been scary, some disturbing, some unsettling.  But few have been as horrifying as Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, a film that is not even a horror movie.  As a documentary it is more potent and devastating than any dramatization of the events could ever be.

There’s nothing commercial or mainstream in Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple; the title says it all.  The film merely uses archival footage and stills to complement interviews with ex-Peoples Temple members, including Jim Jones Jr., a black man that Jones and his wife adopted for his rainbow family.  The film opens up with a reminder of the events of November 18, 1978, and archive footage of Jones preaching.  “You want me to be your father?” he says.  “I can be your father.  You want me to be your savior?  I can be your savior.  You want me to be your god?  I can be your god.”

After this chilling speech the film proceeds to launch into the creation and evolution of the Peoples Temple.  Jones’ childhood in Lynn, Indiana, is discussed, as past friends mention him being a bit of a weird kid, obsessed with religion and death, holding funerals for pets and even stabbing a cat.  But this is about as deep into Jones’ psyche as the film ever goes.  Indeed, how could anyone accurately analyze the mind of such a person without extrapolation and dramatization?

The film tells the story of Jones’ beginnings in the Pentecostal church, about how he longed for an integrated church.  Indianapolis (my hometown) turned out to be too racist for Jones after he successfully integrated his church.  So they boarded buses and moved to Ukiah, California, about 90 miles north of San Francisco.  Here he started a commune, where everyone gave all they had and then were cared for the rest of their lives.  Health care was available when needed, transportation when necessary, anything anyone needed.  The society was happy and carefree, and very diverse.  Jones had a knack for reaching out to the underrepresented in society, garnering a huge black following.  Old black women saw hope in him; he understood them and their plight.  Those on the outskirts of society were the ones he cared for most.  His racially integrated church was reflected in his own racially diverse family.

His socialist gospel was a hit and he soon had a thousand or more followers.  This is what he needed most; a community of his own, that was his and his alone.  He kept them busy and some of them worked 20 hours a day.  No coffee was allowed.  One woman says the longest she stayed awake was 6 days, without caffeine.  Exhausted as they were, they were happy to let Jones make their decisions for them.  The early years seemed mostly happy.  People were living in a utopia, even if it were a controlled society.  But it seems, from the picture that the movie paints, that something happened either in Ukiah or the move to San Francisco in the mid ’70’s.  Jones proclaimed the Bible to be the paper that the whites used to keep the black people down.  Soon he was alleging that “people can see Christ in me.”

After some highly publicized years in San Francisco, where Jones had great political power (his ability to have a diverse group of hundreds of protesters available on demand proved a valuable asset), things started to unravel.  His paranoia and his drug use, along with charges against him by family members of those in his group, led to some investigations.  But the investigations never got as deep as the ex-People’s Temple members attest to in the movie.  They talk about Jones preaching that everyone in the world was homosexual, except for him.  But one man interviewed says that Jones once asked him if he wanted Jones to “fuck him in the ass.”  It turned out this was not a unique instance.

After a newspaper story was about to leak reporting how members were not allowed to leave the group, Jones took everyone down to Jonestown, Guyana, a haven he had been building in the South American jungles for several years.  Here they were able to have their own isolated commune.  Here is where Congressman Leo Ryan went to visit in 1978 to check out accusations, again by family members, that Jones was not allowing people to leave.  Here is where the pleasant visit turned sour, eventually leaving 5 members of Ryan’s party, Ryan included, dead as they attempted to board their aircraft.  Here is where 909 members of the People’s Temple drank cyanide-laced Kool-Aid (or something similar) and died, lying in rows of families.

The documentary covers all of this in broad strokes, relying on the testimony of news reports and ex-Peoples Temple members.  Everything is treated respectfully and credibly, though a couple of the interviews seem to be used to telling their story on camera, leading to possible concerns that some of the facts might have been embellished.  The documentary is above any embellishment, however, and any sense that a couple of the interviews are dramatizing their stories is more than opposed by the straight and devastating nature of their stories.

Some of the details are only briefly covered, such as how Jones was able to acquire and maintain such a large amount of funding.  It is clear that new members would sell their possessions and give everything to the group, but this surely must have been more complicated.  So, too, does Jones remain an enigma.  Such a fascinating and terrifying character must have had some motivation or desire, but the film admirably restrains from making any guesses.  The material begins as horrifying truth, as Jones speaks and people are caught up in the moment.  But there is a sinister side, like watching early clips of Hitler speaking.  The actors’ future deeds create a pall over these vintage filmed moments.

The ending turns painfully sad, as the interviewees tell of their personal stories of the final massacre.  The audio recording of the final 45 minutes is utilized to devastating effect, as is a few seconds of coverage of the firefight at the plane.  But as the ex-members speak of their wives dying in their arms, of their babies frothing at the mouth before succumbing, it is impossible to not be moved almost to tears.

The message of the film is ironically captured on a banner hanging in Jonestown’s main lobby.  It reads, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  But the film is subtle with this theme, and lets the events speak for themselves.  Final images, under the end credits, show the interviews as they are recorded, with sheets hung and boom mikes overhead.  The ex-members are getting ready to relive the most painful moments of their lives, yet their humanness shines through.  Words float above them saying which family members each person lost, and the result is a surprisingly humane and touching end to a devastating and essential film.

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