On November 18, 1978, over 900 people died in Guyana in one of the largest mass suicides in history. The Jonestown massacre and the events leading up to it have long been a subject of confusion, prompting the publication of several speculative books on the subject. Nearly three decades later, there is now a definitive documentary account of the events that can lay to rest many of the questions surrounding the tragic event.
Stanley Nelson’s Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple attempts to provide a balanced portrait of Jim Jones and articulate the appeal he displayed to his followers. Utilizing an extensive library of videos and audiotapes and combining them with interviews with former Peoples Temple members and their families, Nelson is able to craft a film that does both these things.
Beginning with his childhood, Jones is described as a strange person concerned with the plight of his fellow man but also “obsessed” with religion and death. The testimonials binding the narrative together are surprisingly balanced, alternating between reflections of how Jones “saved” members of his congregation through the Peoples Temple, but also tried to have sex with many of them while pressuring them to work long hours for the church. Jones is painted as a kind of perverse father figure for much of the congregation, a man who will feed and clothe his sons while offering to have anal sex with them.
This approach is also very effective in displaying the appeal of the Temple itself. While many interviews discuss the long working hours and Jones’ questionable conduct, they also display how groundbreaking some of Jones’ work actually was. Despite being born and raised in rural Indiana and carrying out much of his early work in the southern United States, Jones is said to have been a champion of racial equality, going so far as to eject those who disagreed with the lack of segregation inside the church.
Nevertheless, the film is also equally effective in showcasing how Jones’ quest to build an ideal socialist society fell off the rails as he gained political clout and the increasing devotion of his followers. Some of the speeches given by Jones are simultaneously uplifting and chilling, particularly when he declares himself the congregation’s saviour and derides those who disagree with the church’s message. The revelation that Jones was abusing a lot of drugs comes as no surprise given some of his comments.
Featuring audiotape of the moments just before the mass suicide and numerous photos of the aftermath, the climax of the film hits hard. Family members left behind by the tragedy aren’t trotted out to bawl and deride Jim Jones as being a terrible human being, representing a triumph on the part of the filmmakers. Exploiting the interviewees would’ve been easy, but also would have cheapened the message of the film. Despite the end result of Jones’ meltdown, the murder of several journalists and an American congressman by Temple members, and the mass suicide itself, several former Jonestown residents mourn the demise of family members, but also the harmonious community they created from scratch in the middle of the Guyanese jungle.
Jonestown is screening in Calgary as a part of the Trimedia and Epcor Centre’s Movies that Matter series. A new film is screened every month to discuss a new important issue.