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This is a sad, chilling documentary about the rise and fall of
psychopathic cult leader Jim Jones's People's Temple. Back home in
Indiana, Jones had a morbid fascination with death and charismatic
religion as early as age 5. He displayed an admirable acceptance of
people of color, but he also killed small animals to serve as subjects
for death rituals he conducted, a disturbing trait not uncommonly
associated with adult personality leanings toward callous violence.
Untrained in the ministry, he nonetheless started his own church in Indiana - an offshoot of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) - while still in his early 20s, later, in 1965, moving it west to a rural commune-like setting in Ukiah, in Northern California, when he was 34, where he also renamed the church People's Temple Full Gospel Church.
After 9 years, in 1974 he moved the church again, this time to San Francisco, where he ingratiated himself with local politicos like George Moscone and Willie Brown, and, in return for his support of Moscone for Mayor, Jones was appointed to the city's housing commission. By 1977 Jones had the itch to move again, and this time his church bought a large tract of land in the interior of Guyana, in northwestern South America. There a settlement, Jonestown, was rapidly established to permanently house over 1,000 church members. In November, 1978, after receiving complaints that all was not well in Jonestown, that people were being forcibly separated from loved ones back home and more or less held hostage, a California Congressman, Leo Ryan, made a trip to Jonestown to see for himself what was going on.
Ryan never returned, for he was shot and killed on the aircraft runway at Jonestown by armed stooges of Jones's, on orders to do so because Jones feared that Ryan would bring trouble if allowed to return to the States. Later that same day, November 18, 1978, Jones used his extensive PA system to order all of his supplicants to take a cyanide drink, to escape the misery that would befall Jonestown once authorities came in large numbers, to go on over to the other side, i.e., presumably to Heaven, where they would find peace.
911 church members died that day, many infants and children given poison by their parents, who then also took the poison drink to create possibly the largest mass suicide in history. Some who did not take poison were, like Rep. Ryan, shot to death. This was also the apparent cause of death for Jones himself. Another 80 members were away on some sort of field trip and were spared.
This is the fifth and perhaps most unusual of director Stanley Nelson's documentaries, which always concern race and the African-American condition (his prior feature films have taken up black press journalists; Marcus Garvey; Oaks Bluff, a black summer community on Martha's Vineyard; and the musical group Sweet Honey in the Rock).
Nelson's interest in Jonestown is connected with the fact that a majority of Jones's supplicants were black. Jones pandered to the suffering of poor blacks and whites alike. He also had sex with many women in the church, and even offered to sodomize anyone - female or male - who asked for or wanted this kind of connection to him, and apparently many did.
Nelson's approach here is intensely personal. He intercuts archival footage - of Jones's life, his activities and various stages in the development of his church - with contemporary interviews of persons who lost loved ones in Guyana. There are no talking heads: no sociologists, no academics who study religious cults, not a single mental health professional to educate us here. Nelson doesn't want us to understand the root causes of this tragedy; he wants us to feel the pain, the grief that this horrible and senseless loss of life wrought, just to feed the craving for power that was obviously Jones's main source of sustenance. It is an agonizing story to witness. My grades: 7/10, B (Seen on 11/25/06)
I have heard about the cult "Peoples Temple" before, but I knew little
about it. Through large amount of rare footages and in depth interviews
of the Peoples Temple survivors and family members of the members of
Peoples Temple, the documentary takes a deep look into this cult and
tries to find out why 909 people committed "mass murder/suicide" on
November 18, 1978 in Jonestown, Guyana.
This film is what a great documentary looks like. It goes beyond the headline and dig deep into the story. I begin to understand whom Jim Jones was. I begin to understand why so many people crossed the racial and social boundaries to come together and even devoted their lives to this cult leader and their "church." Many of the cult followers were struggling with the social injustice and racial discrimination in the 60s and 70s. Jim Jones offered them equality and sense of belonging that the society didn't offer. So Peoples Temple becomes their utopia where they could be so happy and united. Only the sad part is that later some of them realize they were betrayed and they had no way out.
This is definitely a great documentary I have seen this year and I surely hope it will get an Oscar nomination.
I saw this film Tuesday afternoon at the San Francisco International Film Festival and it was amazing. It had a running time of approx. 90 minutes but I'm not really sure because I couldn't take my eyes off of the screen. The film unfolds chronologically and covers the formative years of Jim Jones' life and the birth, rise and eventual demise of the People's Temple. The story is told through interviews with the surviving members of the People's Temple, their family members and the survivors of Congressman Leo Ryan's ill-fated trip to Guyana. The director of the film forces us to look at the People's Temple on it's own merits and set aside the preconceived notions we have regarding the "mass suicide" and the tired notion that the members of the church were cult members who enthusiastically drank cyanide laced kool-aid to ascend to heaven. The former members of the church come off as enlightened idealists who were searching for a life with meaning in a society that ignored them because of their poverty or the color of their skin and they found their champion in Jim Jones. This film doesn't ask questions and answer them; it provides you w/ information and you are forced to disseminate it yourself. We get to see Jones for what he was: a father, a political power broker, old time preacher, son of a dysfunctional family, molester, savior, integrationist and killer.The camera doesn't pass judgment on history it just records it. This documentary fills in the gaps of a story that we thought knew. The music, archival photos and film footage used are amazing. I would highly recommend this film to anyone who is interested in the subject. The documentary unfolds like a dream and takes you on ride through the history of the People's Temple, it grabs you and doesn't let go.
I saw this in San Francisco, where the Peoples Temple was located in
the 70s. Former Peoples Temple members and the director and writer of
the movie were present (and there was discussion after the screening).
It was certainly a powerful place and way to see it, but I think the
movie stands on its own. It does a good job of showing what attracted
people to the Peoples Temple and how, gradually, things started to go
very wrong. There is footage from the days of the Peoples Temple as
well as new and moving testimony (that feels like the right word) from
former members and family of members.
It's not clear if it will get distributed theatrically but, if not, the director said it will air on PBS in 2007. Highly recommended.
This story is so much more complex than news reports of the Guyana tragedy would have us believe. The members of The People's Temple had such altruistic intentions: they had a vision of a Utopian society where racial harmony and true brotherhood was the order of the day. They wanted to guarantee care for the poor, the elderly, children....and they wanted to create real community. This doco manages to tell the whole story, while honoring the pure intentions of the Temple members, and even shedding light on the paradoxical cult leader, Jim Jones - a man who was impressively liberal and progressive, politically, but frighteningly meglomaniacal and abusive, when it came to leading his "flock." The strength of this film lies in the fact that it isn't just a play-by-play from afar, but a collection of first-hand interviews with people who were actually there, and who knew the key players. A must-see for anyone who was alive and aware went these events took place.
This film documents the life of Jim Jones, his emergence as a
charismatic and successful religious figure, and his eventual downfall.
The whole People's Temple story always struck me as just another of the 60's cult phenomena. We had Rajneesh and his farm, and uncountable other guru's who exploited, and continue to exploit, large numbers of gullible followers. The Moonies are still with us, but well below the radar most of the time.
What's odd about Jim Jones -- to me, anyway -- is that no one really seems to know who this guy really was. This film gives more insight than anything else I've seen or read. It talks about his childhood, which was extremely poor, and his family situation, which was equally grim, so we get some insight there. But he was a very carefully guarded fellow. Always wearing those shades, always talking in the manner of a preacher. But who was he really? What was he like when he took off the robes and had a beer? We may never know. His followers certainly didn't know, and no doubt that's a major part of the problem. There is one scene in this documentary in which Jones is standing at the back of a group of people at a large gathering, and his demeanor reminded me of the dictator in North Korea -- it was that kind of vague, arrogant, totally in control look. Spooky.
The most telling comment in this film was the remark made by one of the PT's former members, who said "No one ever goes and joins a cult. They join a church, or a club." But what is the tipping point at which people can tolerate psychological and physical abuse against themselves and their friends? We don't get an answer to that. The people who made this film didn't have to tell us the answer, but it would have been a better film if they had.
I saw this at the London Film Festival, and was impressed by what
appeared to be a balanced picture - of both the Peoples Temple church
and Jim Jones himself. The film is captivating in its chronological
story telling, leading up to the tragic events in Guyana.
However I did find the repeat use of some archival footage a bit weak, and unless I missed it, it was never explained that the "Planning Commission" was part of the Peoples Temple itself.
Like any good documentary, it left me wanting to find out more, but I did think that it was an omission not to attempt any consideration of what led Jones to turn what had been a beneficial organisation, into a murderous one. Neither does the film attempt to look into how the organisation was run - presumably Jones couldn't have directly controlled the 1,000 inhabitants of Jonestown? The source of the poison and weapons is also a subject that doesn't feature, or the question of what happened to the money afterwards?
Overall this is a really interesting film, especially for those of us who were too young to remember the events.
Ah yes, another opportunity to mention The Wire as all fans tirelessly
(and tiresomely) do; I was reminded of the Jonestown massacre (and that
is how I see it) by a Spearhead track on the series soundtrack and
coincidentally this film was on a week or so after I heard it. My
knowledge of the events in Jonestown can be summarised into one short
sentence so this film interested me by offering more than a simple
summary. Using footage from inside the People's Temple movement as well
as interviews with former members this builds the story chronologically
from early stages through to the tragic conclusion to the movement.
There are many challenges and traps associated with telling this story and mostly this film works because it avoids the majority of them and deals well with the telling. The first challenge is to get the viewer to a point where it is at least understandable how Jones could lead such a movement to such an extent. One of the contributors says that nobody sets out to join a cult that will hurt them but yet the film makes it reasonably clear why so many people ultimately did and why so many people put up with so much out-and-out weirdness and oppression. In doing this the material naturally suggests that Jones is a monster or crazy and it would have been easy to ham this aspect up with music etc to the detriment of the film. As it works out, the film doesn't do this and instead lets events speak for themselves without really pulling cheap tricks to sensationalise or demonise anyone unnecessarily.
As a result it all comes over even handed and fair. The heavy use of those directly involved makes it a lot more interesting than a heavy narrator-led approach because you hear things first hand and have an insiders perception of events. Some viewers will feel the lack of conspiracy in the film but I did not because the film was on the general sweep of the tragedy rather than suggested stories behind it. OK so the material does a lot of the work by having a lot of inherent interest within it but even still this documentary is effectively structured with a good personal presentation that gets inside the world of the People's Temple and Jonestown.
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?
This is one of these stories that can be revisited over and over again
while trying to understand what actually happened. What are the reasons
that make people do horrible things without really wanting or
understanding why do they do them. It is a film about collective
delusion and manipulation... or maybe it is a film about fear and
uncertainty towards life?
Well, I wish I could answer these questions after this documentary. But I can't, because despite it's very acceptable technical quality, the choice of a chronological narration doesn't do much to add depth to a character larger than life as Jim Jones was.
The film did a lot to enlighten me in the origins of the church, it's racial integration and also its claims against social inequality. But the character itself remains a mystery to me. His motivations, the techniques he used to control his followers. It is all depicted very lightly and without much intellectual depth. There are moments when some of the cult followers say things about Jones that could be further explored, but unfortunately the director chooses to leave them as nearly an anecdote.
And this is what I think it is the biggest concern I have against this very interesting film. The narration makes Jones appear as an eccentric egomaniac. But the truth is that one hints there was so much more in his plans. It is just not plausible that he just made up the mass suicide- murder idea on the go. There is something utterly well thought out about how everything happened. This is pure evil at work, not very different to the Jew extermination by the Nazis. There was a plan, and I am sure that in this case there was a very well laid out plan. But the film makes it all appear almost as random as the weather.
It is a pity, because the archive footage is varied and excellent. But I can't help but wonder what Errol Morris would have done of this film. Probably a masterpiece, because he would have made what he does best: Portray characters with total precision.
Still, an interesting documentary to watch.
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