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Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple (2006)

7.9
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Featuring never-before-seen footage, this documentary delivers a startling new look at the Peoples Temple, headed by preacher Jim Jones who, in 1978, led more than 900 members to Guyana, where he orchestrated a mass suicide via tainted punch.

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Title: Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple (2006)

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Rebecca Moore ...
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Janet Shular ...
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Tim Carter ...
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Stanley Clayton ...
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Hue Fortson Jr. ...
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Garrett Lambrev ...
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Claire Janaro ...
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Neva Sly Hargrave ...
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Deborah Layton ...
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Phyllis Wilmore Zimmerman ...
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Chuck Wilmore ...
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John R. Hall ...
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Tim Reiterman ...
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June Cordell ...
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Eugene Cordell ...
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Featuring never-before-seen footage, this documentary delivers a startling new look at the Peoples Temple, headed by preacher Jim Jones who, in 1978, led more than 900 members to Guyana, where he orchestrated a mass suicide via tainted punch.

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25 April 2006 (USA)  »

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Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple  »

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Did You Know?

Quotes

Jim Jones: Be assured in that choice is not ours now. It's out of our hands. Die with respect. Die with a degree of dignity. Lay down your life with dignity. Don't lay down with tears and agony. Stop this hysterics. Keep your emotions down. Children, it will not hurt if you'll be quiet.
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Connections

Referenced in Good Dick (2008) See more »

Soundtracks

Something Got a Hold on Me
Performed by the People's Temple Choir
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User Reviews

Jonestown
30 December 2006 | by (United Kingdom) – See all my reviews

This is a very accomplished documentary. It reveals, via its interviewees, a level of despair and dismay that the past twenty eight years have yet to efface. Whole families - indeed an entire community were liquidated in minutes on November 18, 1978. Jim Jones was a conventional mid-western preacher in every respect bar one - his empathy for African Americans, and therefore his commitment to the idea of a racially integrated church. Of course many conventional churches - Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Presbyterians, etc., reached out to marginalised communities, but this tendency was perhaps less pronounced in the southern evangelical tradition, which was highly influential in Jones' home state of Indiana (which had been the epicentre of Klu Klux Klan activity in the decade before Jones' birth under the leadership of Ed Jackson and the infamous David Stephenson). The fact that Jones was a little ahead of the curve on the most sensitive and essential issue in American society, and since he was cursed by an unusual sense of self-belief, it led him to believe that he was special, and that his message and the principles by which he operated his church, were unique. Once he comprehended the uniqueness of his mission there was really no limit to his ambitions - he could be anything - he could be the son of God or he could be an avenging angel. In fact he was also a huckster and con-man of the first order with a vastly inflated sense of his own importance, and his relative ignorance of ecclesiastical history prevented him from acknowledging that there have been several important communistic sects in the Christian tradition - not least in America (viz. the early Anabaptists in Reformation Germany, the Diggers/True Levellers in Commonwealth England, the Shakers and certain aspects of Mormonism, etc.).

As Jones staked out ever greater claims for himself, he placed himself on a trajectory of spiritual fraud that was so steep that any mis-step or retreat might bring his whole house of cards to the point of collapse. He therefore became hopelessly compromised: he could either become the messiah or another one of California's many prison inmates. The stress of this might explain the paranoia, the abuse of those in his power and the self-abuse that occurred as his 'ministry' progressed. In the end he had taken his loyal and long-suffering congregation so far (both emotionally and physically) that he must have reasoned that the only way of evading an wretched reckoning was by some form of abdication - which took the form of his own suicide and the murder of almost all of his followers. Jones was all of a piece with the likes of Charles Manson or David Koresh.

In view of his increasingly outré behaviour, it was almost inevitable that he should have gravitated towards San Francisco and that he should have become prominent in local politics under the aegis of the well-meaning (but arguably misguided) George Moscone. The film does not mention the close connections between the doomed Leo Ryan and Moscone, nor the imminent assassination of Moscone and Harvey Milk by Dan White. That was unfortunate, because it underscored the strangeness of this remarkable story. However, it is by no means a fatal omission. I would have appreciated some detail on the attitude of the Guyanese authorities to this strange Temple in the jungle. Did the government of Forbes Burnham and Arthur Chung know anything about it and the danger that cult members were in? Did they make any attempt to intervene?

I saw this film as part of the 2006 Times/BFI London Film Festival, and it is regrettable that it did not receive more publicity (not least in The Times itself). The story was told dead straight with little of the ostentatious editing that is now so common in documentaries, and is all the more effective for it. The audience left the theatre in something approaching a state of utter desolation - a tribute to the terrible nature of the story, the integrity of the witnesses and the ability of Stanley Nelson and his colleagues.

The film contains many scenes (footage of services in People's Temple) that seem joyous - and they are all the more tragic for that. Yet I could never quite tell what was in the eyes of all these doomed worshippers (many of whom were otherwise helpless, lonely and frail). Was it rapture or was it...terror?


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