Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple
2006Director: Stanley Nelson
Cast: Rev. Jim Jones, Deborah Layton, Marshall Kilduff
or a fleeting moment not too far into Jonestown, the Reverend Jim Jones reminds me of Henry Fonda’s Tom Joad. In scratchy archival footage of Jones preaching theatrically to his heated congregation, he thunders, “Wherever there are people struggling for justice, there I am!”
It is tempting to wonder whether Jim Jones—at whose behest 909 followers downed cyanide-laced Kool-Aid in the jungles of Guyana in November 1978—might have seen The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and that scene where Tom Joad assures his mother that he’s not really leaving, that even dead he’d somehow be present, dissolved into the ferment of the masses. It is one of Fonda’s most often-cited speeches: “Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’ I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build—why, I’ll be there.”
Departing from conventional views of the Peoples Temple as simply “foreign” and “crazy,” this film makes excruciatingly clear that, besides echoing Tom Joad’s words, Jones and his followers came right out of America’s heartland—down to their Okie-like cross-country caravan to the promised land of California when, in 1965, the deep Midwest of his native Indiana became too inhospitable for Jones’ racially integrated church.
Stanley Nelson has endured his own journey. This new documentary opens October 20 at Quad Cinema in New York City, followed by week-long runs in—so far—eleven other cities nationwide before its April 2007 television broadcast on PBS’ American Experience. Whether the film’s tell-tale earmarks of a larger turning point for Nelson prove out, it marks at least some clear departures. In contrast to longer-simmering films, this one came together quickly after Nelson heard some Peoples Temples members on the radio three years ago talking about the event’s 25th anniversary. And besides the leap to theatrical release, the project required adjusting his working habits.
Speaking recently by phone from Berkeley, where his and partner Marcia Smith’s production company, Firelight Media, maintains its west coast office, Nelson said that, for the first time ever, he had turned down other film projects while making Jonestown. Nelson’s work ethic is legendary. He’s been reliably churning out highly respected, award-winning PBS docs at the rate of about one each year for some time now, an output he maintains by always having at least three projects—in pre-production, production, and post-production—in the air simultaneously, “and probably, if you can, one film you’re going to festivals with.” But with Jonestown, he says, “I don’t know how I could possibly have made this film while I was doing something else.” Finally, Nelson has been steadily and systematically amassing an encyclopedic body of work that focuses on African American experience. He has said simply that he makes films about what he knows that have universal themes, but in this case, tackled the project before he recalled that the Peoples Temple membership was some 80% black.
Jonestown works as a documentary by Nelson’s signature techniques. Although he structures his narrative by chronological segments—the early years of 1931-65 in Jones’ native Indiana, the northern California farm years in Ukiah from 1965-74, the 1974-77 period of heady public influence and increasing controversy in San Francisco, and then the final mass flight to South America—he intersperses archival stills, video footage, and audio recordings with current interviews. Nelson doesn’t use actors for dramatic re-enactment; his interview clips are lively, telling, succinct, and placed with unerring aim in the story’s precisely edited flow. He is a master at achieving movement by panning across the frame and zeroing in to pick out details in stills and highlight chunks of text.
Nelson also had access to a stash of videos with soundtracks that surviving Peoples Temple members themselves saved—besides the five who escaped into the forest, another 80 or so were elsewhere that November 1978 day—or which have been recently declassified by government investigators, such as film shot by journalists accompanying Congressman Leo Ryan on the visit to Jonestown that disintegrated so horrifically. Besides providing the film’s tense last half-hour, devoted to the events of those final two November days, this trove of footage provides frequent juxtapositions of interview subjects—over 20 church members with friends and relations—alongside younger versions of themselves speaking from the past. In one riveting scene, a woman describes how Jones had one of his secretaries masquerade as a cripple whom he heals during a service while the church-made video documenting this runs on-screen. Other older, wiser members recount their growing dismay at Jones’ sexual behavior and increasingly paranoid controls. With enormously wise restraint, Nelson allows the emotional resonance created by these pairs of younger and older selves to accumulate throughout the film before his stark revelations of exactly who they lost, which roll in installments between the final credits.
Nelson told me that his striking first impression of the Peoples Temple survivors on that radio show three years ago was their rationality. On screen now, that holds up. One after another, these bright, decent, candid people who have aged with a measure of earned grace, look you in the eye as they recount what happened, where they lost themselves, what getting themselves back cost them. Some went to Peoples Temple accomplished already; some have become so since. Deborah Layton, whose 1999 memoir Seductive Poison details her seven years with Jones and her subsequent escape, provides incisive commentary, as does Jim Jones, Jr., the preacher’s adopted black son. Nelson also secured invaluable interviews with figures such as Marshal Kilduff, whose New West Magazine exposé literally drove Jones to leave San Francisco in the middle of the night; Congressional aide Jackie Spiers, who survived being shot at point blank range on Jonestown’s landing strip (Ryan himself was killed); and journalist Tim Reiterman, who accompanied the Ryan group, too.
As for the Tom Joad factor in this, there’s no doubt that Nelson won both the access and the material by deeply grasping the desire among Peoples Temple members for community, social justice, and something larger than themselves. Far from aberrant, these things comprise a broad streak in American character that surfaces from time to time, startling us much as those younger selves that arise on-screen, via cinematic editing, beside the now graying Peoples Temple members. Jonestown invites us to see that same streak, with its wildly swinging potential, in ourselves and others. Near the end of our conversation, I asked Nelson if he thought people might draw parallels between Jonestown and our post-9/11 world. With a little half laugh, he said at once, “I hope so!”
Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple opens October 20 at Quad Cinema in New York City for one week, with other engagements in Los Angeles and nationwide through early next year. It airs on PBS on April 9, 2007.