Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple
Photos and Video
The end of it all is steeped in American lore: In 1978, more than 900 members of Peoples Temple committed mass suicide under instructions from their preacher Jim Jones. However, the road that led up to this horrific event is not so well known. Founded in the mid-1950's, Peoples Temple traversed the country before fleeing an increasingly skeptical American public to South America. It was a church where thousands found love and acceptance, as well as a welcoming, progressive environment that seemed to contrast sharply with the divisions threatening society at the time. In Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, director Stanley Nelson deploys an impressive collection of audio and video footage (including never-before-seen clips and present-day interviews) that evokes the true flavor of Peoples Temple. The film shows how Jones worked the believers into delirium, and isolated Peoples Temple in a vacuum of paranoia and suspicion before giving his followers his final, deadly orders. For decades, people have tried to understand just what could make hundreds of ordinary, rational people walk down a path towards insanity and suicide. Nelson, by using Jones' own sermons along with footage shot on the actual day of the largest mass suicide in modern history, seeks to clarify that mystery. Jonestown recreates every step of their tragic downfall.
Director's Statement Collapse
For me, like many Americans, the 1978 murder-suicides in Jonestown, Guyana, occupy a place of horror mixed with fascination. Somehow, the photos of the mysterious white preacher with dark sunglasses, the bloated bodies strewn across a tropical compound, and the "Kool-Aid" references never seemed to answer the questions I held on to. What drew so many people across racial and class lines to the Peoples Temple? How could a diverse group of 900 people be convinced to commit suicide? What was a California congregation doing miles away from home in the jungles of South America? And who was Jim Jones to command such loyalty that, in the name of struggle and religion, parents would murder their own children? I made this film in part to answer those questions, but to find the story I had to dig beyond the headlines, popular conceptions, and conspiracy theories. We uncovered original audiotapes and footage shot by Temple members of Jim Jones and the congregation, along with scores of never-before-seen photographs recently declassified from the CIA's investigations into Peoples Temple and Jonestown. Poring through the photos and video revealed the reality that Jim Jones commanded an almost 80% black congregation, a remarkable fact that was lost on me all of these years. Then we sought out former Peoples Temple members and surviving relatives, many of whom agreed for the first time to tell the dramatic story of Jonestown in their own words. I was surprised and profoundly moved by their stories of idealism and camaraderie, of blind faith and staggering loss. And what emerged beyond the horror of the events I thought I knew so well was a surprisingly recognizable portrait of people who became inspired by a revolutionary vision for utopia, only to be betrayed by the man who promised to lead them there. For me, the story of Jonestown is about the thin lines between faith and zealotry, loyalty and coercion, charismatic leadership and demagoguery. It is a familiar story that has repeated itself throughout history and across continents, as people in times of uncertainty lose themselves to someone whom they believe will offer them stability and security. As the sign found hanging above the pulpit in Jonestown, Guyana, aptly warned, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
Film Information Collapse
[JONES] | 2006 | 86 | Documentary Feature
Foreign Title: (Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple)
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About the Director(s)Collapse
Stanley Nelson, a 2002 MacArthur Fellow, is best known for his award-winning historical documentaries that illuminate critical but overlooked history. For his 2003 film The Murder of Emmett Till, which was broadcast nationally on PBS's American Experience, Nelson won various awards, including the Primetime Emmy™ for Best Directing for Nonfiction, the Special Jury Prize at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival, an International Documentary Association award, and the George Foster Peabody award. His 2004 film A Place of Our Own, a semiautobiographical look at the African-American middle class, was screened at the Sundance Film Festival and on PBS's Independent Lens. In 2005, PBS's American Masters debuted Sweet Honey in the Rock: Raise Your Voice, a top-selling concert film. Nelson is also the executive producer of Firelight Media, a nonprofit documentary production company dedicated to giving a voice to people and issues that are marginalized in popular culture.