Almost 20 years after he led more than 900 people to suicide, cult leader Jim Jones continues not just to fascinate, but to elude. In Berkeley filmmaker Stanley Nelson’s thoughtful documentary “Jonestown,” we see footage of Jones we haven’t seen before, but the man’s legendary magnetism remains mysterious.
Maybe that’s something that no look back can ever really provide. What Nelson’s film excels at is showing us the pull of Jones’ Peoples Temple, an offshoot of 1960s and’70s counter culture, a place where race was not an issue and idealism ruled.
Like playwright Leigh Fondakowski’s “The People’s Temple,” which played to great acclaim at Berkeley Rep in the spring of 2005, Nelson’s “Jonestown” illuminates not the cult leader, but the community that sprang up around him.
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The film shows us the familiar sight of those bloated bodies, face down, in Guyana, but it also shows us members of the Peoples Temple in life. We see them at services in San Francisco, in their compounds in Ukiah and Guyana and on membership drives, where they seem happy, peaceful, content and sure that they’ve found the right place to be.
“Nobody joins a cult, nobody joins something they think is going to hurt them,” former member Deborah Layton says. “You join a religious organization. You join a political movement and you join with people you really like.”
Nelson sketches a quick portrait of Jones, who grew up poor and unloved by an alcoholic father. Apparently even as a young boy, Jones was fascinated by death — there is mention of a neighborhood rumor that Jones killed a cat with a knife — and religious rituals. His transition into preacher happens a little too quickly; we don’t feel as though “Jonestown” gives the whole picture of his evolution into cult leader.
But Nelson’s portrait of the end of Peoples Temple is extraordinarily thorough. After learning that New West magazine was about to publish an expose of his financial and moral corruption, Jones rushed most of the cult off to Guyana in 1977, where the allegedly Utopian “Jonestown” was under construction.
(The New West story was held, allegedly due to political pressure, and was published after the tragedy at Jonestown, with an apology from the magazine’s editors.)
The Peoples Temple had been operating from there for more than a year when a contingent of politicians, including Congressman Leo Ryan and his legal advisor, Jackie Speier, and journalists arrived on Nov. 17, 1978 for a tour of Jonestown. The next day, Ryan was killed, Speier was shot and Jones ordered his followers to start committing mass suicide.
Using still photographs, some video footage, interviews with those who fled and a lot of audio tape, Nelson weaves together a disturbingly vivid timeline of those last hours.
The descriptions of babies being taken from their mothers and dosed with cyanide in Flavor-Aid, while Jones admonishes people to “die with dignity” and urges them to the vat “quickly, quickly, quickly” with armed guards standing by, makes it clear that though mass suicide is the term we commonly use to describe what happened at Jonestown, it isn’t exactly accurate.
Survivor Tim Carter calls it “slaughter.” He watched his wife and baby son die and then fled into the jungle. Describing it now, his eyes still well up, and he still gets angry.
“Senseless waste,” he says.
Nelson’s film helps us understand that Jonestown may be history, but the tremendous loss still resonates.