September 20, 2006

Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple

Directed by Stanley Nelson

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

The 1978 mass murder/suicide involving more than 900 Peoples Temple members in Guyana – hundreds of them children – remains one of the most chilling examples of the religious cult phenomenon. Featuring newly procured home movies, photos, and voice recordings, as well as interviews with the survivors, Stanley Nelson’s documentary Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple serves as a chilling cautionary tale on the dangers of blind-faith fanaticism.

Reverend Jim Jones was an outsider during his formative years in 1930s’ Indiana, which was then a stronghold of the Ku Klux Klan. At this early age, he found a sense of belonging at church services and sympathized with the plight of oppressed black people. Interviews with his childhood peers reveal Jones’ unorthodox early fascination with religion: He would kill small pets and perform mock funerals for fun.

Jones began building Peoples Temple in 1950s’ Indianapolis. Survivors describe the electrifying services where church members sang and danced in the aisles. The film also features several recordings of the church choir performing. “Peoples Temple really was a black church. It was led by a white minister, but in terms of the worship service, commitment to the social gospel and its membership, it functioned completely like a black church,” an interviewee recalls.

Feeling that Indianapolis was too racist for his ideal of a racially-integrated congregation, Jones moved the church to rural California in 1965. Gradually, he convinced members to surrender their salaries and life savings as contributions to the construction of a self-contained utopia.

As Peoples Temple grew to thousands strong, Jones lent support to various causes by mobilizing his followers to attend various rallies and demonstrations. He gained tremendous political clout in San Francisco during the mid-1970s, when Mayor George Moscone appointed him to be Chairman of the City Housing Authority. Meanwhile, Jones grew increasingly paranoid as his substance abuse problems worsened.

In 1977, on the eve of a magazine exposé, in which defectors from Peoples Temple detailed physical abuses at the church, Jones and nearly 1,000 members fled to a settlement in Guyana, where he was in total control of all aspects of the people’s lives. When Representative Leo Ryan and several journalists visited Jonestown in 1978 at the urging of concerned relatives, Jones ordered the assassinations of Ryan and the rest of the delegation, as they were about to board the plane to return to the U.S.

Obviously knowing that this horrific act would sound the death knell for him and his utopian dream, Jones directed the poisoning of nearly everyone in the compound with cyanide-laced Kool-Aid.

Veteran documentarian Nelson here constructs a fairly standard film. Various interviewees, mostly survivors or relatives of deceased Peoples Temple members, lend narration to the archival photographs, newspaper clippings, and never-before-seen footage.

However, Jones remains somewhat of an enigma throughout the documentary. Audio interviews and sermons, as well as news footage featuring the charismatic pied piper, offer little insight, and viewers must piece together his mental state based on fragmented descriptions supplied in the interviews. The most chilling piece of evidence here is a voice recording made during the mass murder/suicide, when Jones urged the killing of children at Jonestown.

The 85-minute documentary seems to be on the short side. Nelson carefully constructs the first half, which details the rise of Peoples Temple. Then the film rushes through its more disturbing second half, as survivors describe their own ordeals of unwanted sexual advances without necessarily establishing the big-picture magnitude of Jones’ corruptions and abuses.

Nelson does not address the conspiracy theories that have surfaced since the disastrous event, especially the alleged involvement of the CIA. He also fails to touch on the fact that 5,000 pages from a government investigation remain classified to this day.

Judging from recent headlines on religious and polygamy sects, the story of Jonestown is certainly pertinent today with some universal notes as well. But Nelson doesn’t really provide the perspective that would come from delving deeper into the scale and the modern-day relevance of the Jonestown tragedy.

Reprinted from © Copyright 2006 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.