I had the pleasure recently of interviewing Stanley Nelson, the director of the new documentary about Jonestown that was recently aired on PBS and released on DVD. When doing research prior to the interview I found a site that bitterly criticized the film and nelson's approach. The author of the blog believed Nelson was a trying to whitewash Jim Jones and not portray him as the deeply disturbed man he obviously was.
This film tries to strike a balance between the natural freak show aspects of the story and trying to humanize the Jonestown experience. I think he did a fairly good job, although I do have certain criticisms.
People remember that the 1978 deaths at Jonestown in Guyana in South America as the largest mass suicide in recorded history. Filmmaker Stanley Nelson wanted audiences to remember more than just the hideous end for over 900 people he wanted to explore what brought them to an isolated section of the South American jungle.
Nelson's new documentary, "Jonestown, the Life and Death of Peoples Temple," will make its television and DVD debut on April 9. It will be seen on PBS station as an episode of "American Experience."
Charismatic preacher Jim Jones and his social experiment have been the subjects of films before. A wildly exploitive drive-in movie "Guyana: Crime of the Century" was released in 1979, while a more sober television production, "Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones," won an Emmy in 1980 when it was broadcast.
Nelson spent almost three years working on the film that weaves interviews with 25 people, two of which actually escaped from Jonestown, with archival footage and sound.
Nelson said he remembered hearing about Jones and the Peoples Temple on the radio in the 1970s. He said that members of the San Francisco-based church were living out socially progressive ideals.
"It sounded so sane," Nelson recalled to Reminder Publications in a telephone interview.
That perception changed when the 1978 mass suicide and the murder of Congressman Leo Ryan was reported. Nelson said the story of "the crazy man" stopped with his death and the deaths of many of his followers.
In his research Nelson found that Jones was "a very complicated man. It was hard to make it simple."
Nelson went back to Jones' Indiana hometown and said that Jones "was never normal. He was a strange guy who hid [his true feelings]."
As an adult Jones became a controversial preacher who broke down racial barriers and fought for social change. He and his wife adopted African-American and Asian children, making them one of the first multi-racial families in his home state.
He formed a successful commune in California and then decided to bring his ministry to a large city, San Francisco, where he became a political force.
Although Nelson said that "on the surface, [the church] was very, very attractive" to many people, there were problems revolving around Jones' sexual practices and faked healings, among other issues.
With his church under greater scrutiny, eventually Jones decided that he and his congregation could only practice their brand of religion and socialism outside of the United States. Jones acquired property in Guyana and built a small town there.
Nelson believes there was no one trigger to Jones' deteriorating mental state that led to the move to Guyana and the abuses that culminated in the suicide. He thinks Jones' problems started with childhood and grew more severe.
"With more and more power, things got worse," Nelson said. "In Guyana, he was totally isolated. He built a little kingdom."
Nelson said that people who have seen the film have been affected by it.
"It's such a dark story. People joined [the Peoples Temple] with all of the best intentions and were led astray."
"There's no happy ending to it," he said. "It's a cautionary tale."
There's an old saying in show business that a performer should always leave an audience wanting more. I'm not sure if that's the best approach in documentary filmmaking, but at the end of "Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple" I did want more.
Nelson's film goes a very long way in humanizing the people who joined Peoples Temple. Through numerous interviews, it becomes clear the congregation was not made up of people who could be simply be written off as mindless members of a cult. Instead these were people who were swept up in the idealism of the 1960s and early '70s and saw this church as a true vehicle of change.
The film is also effective in showing how Jim Jones, undoubtedly plagued with mental health issues for most of his life, slowly went from being a preacher with ideas to a paranoid who said he was the reincarnation of Jesus and Buddha.
The filmmakers interviewed Jim Jones, Jr., who was away from Jonestown the day of the suicide, and I wanted them to ask him what kind of man his father was, how did his mother figure into the Peoples Temple and how his life has been for him in the years since the suicide.
They didn't broach those subjects and the film is weaker because of it.
The film doesn't try to whitewash Jones nor does it vilify him. It is a very sad, melancholic production because we know the ending of it. And Nelson is right in saying it is a cautionary tale. In turbulent times, another Jones might be around the corner.
© 2007 by Gordon Michael Dobbs