SAN FRANCISCO –When Stanley Nelson set out to make a documentary on cult leader Jim Jones and the mass murder-suicide of his followers, his biggest challenge was unearthing enough new footage to make the 28-year-old story seem fresh again.
He thought he’d need expensive dramatic recreations and heavy narration to tell the story of the deaths of more than 900 people in the jungle of Guyana in 1978.
But in more than 30 interviews with survivors and family members, Nelson was entrusted with prized recordings that helped piece together the Peoples Temple, and why Jones’ followers believed in him until the very end.
Among the rare footage unearthed by Nelson are home videos showing the construction of the Jonestown compound and the video diaries of cult members.
“We weren’t going for just the shock value of this story,” said Nelson, 54, of Oakland. “We were seriously interested in why people joined, why they stayed, what it was like to live in Jonestown.”
Nelson’s documentary, “Jonestown,” financed by Boston’s WGBH, premieres April 26 at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. It follows Jones from a disturbed childhood through the temple’s final days.
One of at least two new films on Jones and his cult, it is also scheduled to air next year on the PBS series “American Experience.”
Both filmmakers said the time was right to re-examine the tragedy.
The passage of nearly three decades has made survivors more willing to talk. And the filmmakers are eyeing a ripe demographic: young politically minded audiences that grew up after Jonestown but are fascinated by religious extremism.
“It’s really important that we understand that the way people are led into evil is by following someone they generally believe is right and good,” Nelson said. “These things happen over and over again throughout the history of the world. It’s important that we question our leaders about who they are and where they’re leading us.”
Wolochatiuk’s film focuses solely on the final days of Jonestown and the temple’s sudden unraveling. Its goal is to present a balanced portrayal of the followers’ devotion to Jones and the temple, he said.
“One of the universal questions that’s still out there is why or how this could happen,” he said. “When you dig deep enough, it could be you or me. When you scratch deep enough, you realize that these are people with very good intentions.”
Tim Reiterman, the Los Angeles Times writer who co-wrote the seminal book on the Peoples Temple, “Raven,” was interviewed for both films.
Reiterman was shot by temple followers in Guyana while reporting on the congressional delegation led by Rep. Leo Ryan, who was killed in the attack at an airstrip as defectors tried to flee.
Reiterman said he was pleased with both films’ efforts to further understanding of the temple’s followers, many of whom joined with the best of motives, and of the circumstances surrounding the deaths.
Many people were murdered at Jonestown, he points out, and did not in fact commit suicide.
“Any documentary that portrays Peoples Temple followers as anything other than robots is a good thing,” he said.