Monday, April 16, 2007

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

Two things make Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, a documentary about one of the most notorious religious cults in history as well as their tragic end in one of the largest mass suicides in history, one of the scariest films I have ever seen. The first is rather obvious: the film ends with a recreation of Jonestown's last day, complete with testimony of the few survivors (something like 5 people out of the more than 900 at Jonestown on that fateful afternoon), and audio and video materials taken at the camp on November 18, 1978, when the group's leader, Reverend Jim Jones, ordered his congregation to poison themselves with a mixture of cyanide, Valium, and Kool-Aid. The second is more surprising and thus more disturbing: contrary to what we commonly believe about fringe religious groups and cults, the people who went to Peoples Temple were rational and sane and not brainwashed (at least not initially) and Jones, for his laundry list of flaws was a charismatic leader and, in some ways, a forward thinker.

Understand, I'm not trying to defend Jones or anything he did: he'd lost touch with reality and the things that brought him such a large and influential congregation well before he brought them to Guyana to build the remote settlement he named after himself. But years earlier Jones was a radical preacher who promoted racial tolerance and self-actualization. One of his former congregants recounts a famous sermon where Jones held up the Bible and declared it powerless. To prove it he heaved it into the audience and let the crowd fall silent and listen to its heavy thud as it hit the ground. He waited for some sign of God's wrath and when none came he announced the Bible a simple book, that the power of God came from people doing things for themselves.

If Jones believed these notions at some point, he lost touch with them as his own power grew. We can imagine his thought process: "If people have all this power to control their own lives, imagine what I could do if I turn that power in my direction." Soon Jones went from filling the role of father for those in his church that had none, to demanding that his whole church address him as "The Father."

Even before his final, heinous act he had already become a deeply disturbed man. He might have been an alcoholic; he almost certainly sodomized his congregants while declaring his assaults as things he provided for their benefit (He also declared everyone around him a homosexual and he, the one forcing himself on his male followers mind you, the sole heterosexual on the entire planet). He eventually came to prefer, then expect, then demand, that congregants turn over their possessions, salaries, even their homes to the church, where they often worked 20 hour shifts and frequently went days without sleep. This is all before, fearing the reprisals that were certain to come in the wake of the publication of a magazine article featuring the damning accounts of former Peoples Temple members, Jones packed up his church and split for Guyana.

I was superficially familiar with Jonestown and, of course, I was intimately familiar with the "drink the kool-aid" line that has since entered the vernacular. After learning the extent of the horror that took place at Jonestown, I doubt I'll use it so callously again. The suicide was the culmination of a series of days in which the Jonestown settlement was visited by Congressman Leo Ryan, who went to visit and examine the Peoples Temple group at the behest of concerned constituents whose relatives and loved ones were in Guyana and seemingly trapped there. Ryan's first day at Jonestown (which, according to accounts I've read online, was scrupulously rehearsed and image-controlled by Jones) was a complete success, documenting in spellbinding footage during a wild party/reception in Ryan's honor and a truly deranged moment where Ryan admits his skepticism about the place has been chipped away by the members' rabid enthusiasm. When he remarks that the people he's spoken to look at Jonestown as their life's greatest accomplishment a spontaneous roar of appreciation goes up from the crowd.

The euphoria didn't last. By the next day more and more disgruntled congregants were trying to convince Ryan to help them escape. Jones was secretly pressuring people to stay while publicly announcing that anyone was free to come and go as they pleased. Suddenly someone pulled a knife and attacked Ryan. Then as the Congressman tried to leave in his chartered plane, it was besieged by armed gunman. When they returned and announced Ryan was dead, Jones decided it was time to "die with dignity."

Director Stanley Nelson's documentary is especially chilling for its immediacy; there is no narration and very little testimony that doesn't come directly from participants in the events. The people who knew and, indeed, in some cases loved Jones get to express and explain themselves, and they do so eloquently. And hearing what Jones did to these people from an expert or historian is a great deal different from hearing it from someone was there and survived it. There is an urgency to this documentary like few others.

Jonestown is about such a compelling subject that Nelson could have done a cursory job and gotten away with a very watchable film. But Nelson's formal strategy turns it into something a good deal better than that. Horrified and sad, we watch as hundreds of people decided they did not want or deserve to live and a few others decided that, contrary to what they had been programmed to believe, they did.


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