During that terrible week in mid-November 1978, each day brought bizarre reports from Jonestown, the commune in Guyana that was born of the San Francisco-based church Peoples Temple. A U.S. Congressman ambushed and assassinated; lawyers, reporters and shell-shocked survivors fleeing into the jungle; and at the camp, some 900 people found dead of an apparent mass suicide.
It was a gut-punch news event, and yet little about the story made sense. Why had so many Americans relocated to a little-known South American country? Who was their leader, the Rev. Jim Jones? And why had his followers taken their lives en masse, even administering poison to their own children?
Now, more than a quarter-century later, Stanley Nelson's straightforward documentary Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple revisits that uneasy episode -- beginning with Jim Jones' early religious career in Indiana, through his founding in the 1970s of Peoples Temple, and his eventual creation of a spin-off agricultural utopia, Jonestown.
The historical narrative is told in first-person accounts, primarily those of former church members and survivors of Jonestown. Supplementing the contemporary interviews is archival footage, including recently declassified material from the CIA (which had monitored Jones for years). Nelson has also compiled unsettling film and audio documenting the last 36 hours at Jonestown, when the dream unraveled horribly.
But while the first-person approach effectively conveys the personal horror, it leaves unexplained some details about Jones, his organization and what unfolded in Guyana. Similarly, Nelson's film doesn't provide much context, such as the disillusionment widespread in mid-1970s America, or the prevalence in California of other cult groups.
Moreover, Jones himself, who resembled a Midwestern salesman in creepy sunglasses, remains an enigma. But the accounts of former congregants flesh out how perfectly ordinary people end up in a cult. Some were drawn by Jones' social-justice mission, others to the church's racial and socio-economic diversity. And they explain why they stayed, even as their "father," Jones, grew more manipulative, exploitive, paranoid and, finally, murderous. Most of the former members now see why they behaved as they did, yet few truly understand what made Jones who was -- just that they followed him regardless.
At Jonestown, a sign hung above Jones' chair read: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." This film is about a unique event, yet the pieces of its puzzle -- the tendency of otherwise sane people to be swayed by charismatic, controlling leaders -- have and will again assemble in new and terrible ways. Jonestown asks us to look back -- and forward. Among its cautions, the still-anguished voices of those, who 30 years ago, sent up unheeded red flags about a worthy church gone terribly wrong.
Starts Fri., Feb. 23. Harris
- Never trust a preacher with shaded eyes: Rev. Jim Jones