Jonestown: The Life and Death of
The legacy of Jim Jones is
so horrific that the world has had to look at it sideways just to digest and
deal with it. In the nearly thirty years
since the tragic mass suicides of Jonestown, Guyana, the occurrence has
almost become trivialized. Maybe as a way to deal with the horror of
what happened, the legacy of Jim Jones has become the creation of a cliché
(when someone follows something blindly, they are said to be "drinking the
cool-aid") and a joke rock band name (merged with the late Rolling Stones
guitarist to come up with Brian Jonestown Massacre.)
909 people were killed on
that 1978 day in the cult, including US Congressman Leo Ryan, who was just a
good public servant doing his job when he unwittingly set the wheels of
death in motion. To this day it is the largest mass-suicide/murder on
record and yet such a staggering occurrence has not been captured much on
film. There are very few documentaries which have looked at the
tragedy and one respected TV movie with actor Powers Boothe giving an Emmy
award winning portrayal of cult leader Jim Jones.
So it's good that
documentary filmmaker Stanley Nelson (The Murder of Emmitt Till, A Place
of Our Own) has finally taken a close, measured look at the events of
that horrific day, as well as the life of the movement and the charismatic
madman who birthed it. Able to have access to recently declassified
government information on the Temple, as well as surviving members who have
moved on just enough that they can finally revisit their memories, this is
as full a story of what happened we are likely to get.
The film starts off with a
very cogent point. No one sets out to join a cult. Nelson is
very even-handed about the People's Temple, showing the ugliness behind the
facade, but also showing the beautiful potential which was squandered.
In all fairness, these early scenes of the People's Temple are rather
seductive. They show the church as an almost old school southern
revival meeting, complete with ecstatic singing, a melting-pot mentality,
entertainment and rapture. You can see how people were drawn in.
They really were looking
for "heaven on earth" as so many members stated, and for a short time it
seemed that they were able to overcome human divides like class, ethnicity
and skin color. Nelson does not judge or disagree with these beliefs,
although from the beginning the glint of evil as epitomized by the
charismatic leader who was stalked by deeper and more hideous demons than
anyone ever imagined.
Jones was a young, poor
outcast in Indiana who found that he fit in more with the black children
than the white. He was fascinated by their old-time religion revivals
and embraced them. However, even as a child he came at it from a
perverted angle, as shown by a recollection of how as a young boy Jones
murdered a house cat just so he could preside over its funeral.
However with his
Elvis-slick looks, his fast talking God-salesman patter and his
inscrutability (he was almost never seen without his sunglasses) Jones
quickly built a huge congregation. Jones chose a small town in
northern California (which was featured in a magazine article as one of the
nine best places in the US to get lost from the rest of the world) to start
his own Utopia, eventually becoming powerful enough to have a political
office in the San Francisco Department of Housing.
However, slowly, but
suddenly, the recollections turn to show that drugs, violence, sexual
humiliation, lack of sleep and brainwashing. People's Temple had
already started working on a new Eden in the South American country of
Guyana when Jones was alerted of the inevitable publication of a magazine
article exposing the Temple's dirty secrets. Literally overnight,
Jones moved the entire settlement down to Jonestown.
Down there, instead of the
peace they looked for, a siege mentality took over. Friends, family,
wives, children -- all turned in each other. The idea of leaving could
be met with humiliation or even death. Jones' sermons were aired
constantly, 24 hours a day, every day. Jones became more incoherent,
more drunk and anesthesized and more and more unhinged as the people
careened out of control towards their sad date with destiny.
Jonestown: The Life and
Death of People's Temple is not an easy film to watch, particularly the
audio and video footage of the final day. It is, however, an important
piece of documentary filmmaking and a strong reminder of an unthinkable
horror that could very well happen again if the rest of the world looks
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Posted: October 19, 2006.