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Veteran filmmaker Stanley Nelson traces the stunning rise and fall of Peoples Temple and its charismatic founder Jim Jones, who convinced hundreds of his followers in Jonestown, Guyana to participate in a mass “suicide” on November 18, 1978. The shocking tragedy made international headlines. More than 900 people, including more than 200 children, died in the utopian community they had tried to create in the jungles of Guyana in South America. Many of those who died were from the Bay Area as Jones held sway over a huge congregation in San Francisco from 1972 to 1977. Nelson interviews former members of Peoples Temple, including many whose family members perished in Jonestown. Initially, they felt they were part of an idealistic interracial community that could change the world. But they also reveal the fear, paranoia and beatings that were part of the traumatic experience. Jones became their father, friend, savior and god. The film includes remarkable archival footage of Jones discussing his childhood in Indiana and preaching in San Francisco, where he wielded considerable political clout due to his ability to get hundreds of his followers to appear at many local political events. There is also riveting footage of San Mateo Congressman Leo Ryan's visit to Jonestown to investigate claims of people being held against their will and audiotape of Jones preaching, including his chilling exhortation to “die with dignity.” How was it possible for such an horrific event to take place? This disturbing portrait raises as many questions as it answers.

The cataclysm of Nov. 18, 1978, happened thousands of miles away in the jungle of Guyana, but it struck at the heart of San Francisco. That was the day that Peoples Temple founder Jim Jones, after first ordering the assassination of Rep. Leo Ryan, commanded his followers -- who once worshiped at Jones' Geary Boulevard headquarters -- to commit suicide by drinking poison-laced fruit punch.

More than 900 men, women and children died that day in Jonestown, but the event has receded into memory, the phrase "Don't drink the Kool-Aid" becoming little more than a pop-culture punch line. Stanley Nelson's compelling new documentary, "Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple," reclaims that history and restores perspective that was lost in the horror of that day. (The film opens Friday at Bay Area theaters.)

A 2002 MacArthur "genius" fellow and recent Bay Area transplant, Nelson, an Oakland resident, admits that he knew little about Peoples Temple or Jonestown when he first became interested in the subject. "I knew no more than most people around the country. I had heard that over 900 crazy people had followed this madman into the middle of nowhere and then they had followed him to their deaths. They were all crazy."

But Nelson, who has won numerous awards for his work, including a Golden Spire at 1999's San Francisco International Film Festival for "The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords" and an Emmy for 2003's "The Murder of Emmett Till," recognizes a compelling story when he hears one. In 2003, on the 25th anniversary of Jonestown, he heard surviving members of Peoples Temple on the radio and found himself intrigued.

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"What they talked about was different from what I had known," he remembers. "They sounded so sane. They talked about joining because they wanted to change the world, because they wanted to be part of some big social action that Peoples Temple was a part of. They still talk about other members of Peoples Temple with a great deal of fondness and love."

As Nelson began researching Jones, the white Indiana native who began as a Pentecostal preacher in his home state and went on to lead a largely African American urban church dedicated to social change, the filmmaker came to realize that it was unlikely that anyone could amass a following of that many people who all happened to be insane. That led to the questions that lie at the heart of Nelson's documentary. "These people weren't crazy, so what was it that attracted them to Peoples Temple and what was it that made them stay?" he wondered.

 

Director: Stanley Nelson
Cast:
No one
Release: October 20, 2006 (Limited)
Synopsis:
On November 18, 1978, over 900 members of Peoples Temple died in the largest mass suicide/murder in history. What drew so many people across racial and class lines to the People’s Temple? How could a diverse group of 900 people be convinced to drink the poisoned Flavor Aid that caused their deaths?

Prognosis: Positive. I’m not one to draw much inspiration from song lyrics.

One tune, though, “Dogma” from KMFDM, has lingered with me for a long, long time. It goes, “The only reason you’re still alive is because someone has decided to let you live.”

The thing that I learned after watching the deplorable things our government exacted on the residents of the Branch Davidians in a movie called WACO: THE RULES OF ENGAGEMENT is that the government not only are the storytellers when it comes to explaining to the writers of history their own version what’s happened but that there isn’t a concerted effort to teach this kind of social studies inside the public educational system. I have never been exposed to a true explanation of what happened in Jamestown but it’s this kind of documentary filmmaking, exposing these tales to a little air and public scrutiny, that gets me all sorts of excited to finally feel I have a handle on all those “drink the Kool-Aid” jokes we’ve all heard in one context or another.

And this trailer begins, spooky as all fuck, with the sounds of distant church bells and a black scene with all the background information we need: “On November 18th, 1978 in Jonestown, Guyana, 909 members of the Peoples Temple died in what has been called the largest mass suicide in modern history.”

You’ve got my undivided attention.

We see slow-motion file footage of the people who ostensibly made up the rank and file of this “cult,” the voice-over of someone who we don’t see explaining that no one joins a cult, that they are people who are joining a movement and are trying to be with other individuals who they enjoy being around, and it’s disconcerting. You realize that all these vibrant people are going to be dead quite soon.

Next up is a brief look into what these people were subscribing to when they all decided Jim Jones was on the level: they felt he was someone who could bring positive change. It doesn’t feel religious as it does social. Society was rocking and rolling in a tumultuous cement mixer of polar issues and people looked to Jim for stability. Too bad that when we first see Jim you can immediately see those crazy eyes of his; I mean, they look bat shit crazy.

It breaks your heart when you listen to one of the interview subjects talk about what these people were escaping in modern America, racism being one, but when you see a pack of kids just happy to be kids in this hippie playground you can’t turn away from what’s coming.

This is when you see a photo of Jim Jones with his fingers on a stack of clear plastic cups.

The narration of our interview subject, on the verge of tears as he tells of the pain that still swirls around his heart, telling us that those who were followers of Jim were just “fucking slaughtered,” the beep being the one thing that’s added to his twice echoed sentiment, all you can do is stare at the photos of the dozens of dead people on the ground. Entire families just face first in the dirt. Dead.

Gripping stuff and this trailer just begs to be seen for no other reason than to try and see what it was that moved these people into complete obedience and acceptance of their collective fates.

 

CREDITS

dir Stanley Nelson

prod Stanley Nelson


cam Michael Chin

editor Lewis Erskine

mus Tom Phillips
source Firelight Media, 2600 Tenth Street, Ste. 636, 94710 Berkeley, CA 94710 FAX: 510-704-9201

EMAIL: marcia@firelightmedia.org

 


 
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