Jonestown: The Life and Death of the Peoples Temple: Documentary. Directed by Stanley Nelson.
(Not rated. 85 minutes. At the Lumiere, Berkeley Shattuck, San Rafael Film Center. For complete movie listings and show times, and to buy tickets for select theaters, go to sfgate.com/movies.)
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Jones positioned himself as a national figure — and certainly a prominent San Franciscan, having helped George Moscone become mayor and, as a reward, ran the city’s Housing Authority. But he was paranoid at letting the outside world glimpse at the inner workings of his organization, and that this footage — much of it never before seen publicly, some of it apparently only recently declassified by the CIA — exists makes “Jonestown: The Life and Death of the Peoples Temple” one of the year’s most important documentaries, a real must-see.
Nelson, an award-winning documentarian who made an impression with his 2003 film “The Murder of Emmett Till,” doesn’t demonize or glamorize Jones, but he instead takes a levelheaded approach at understanding how he came to be the way he was and how his parishioners could fall so deeply under his spell. He weaves moving recollections and commentary from cult survivors with film footage and photographs to trace his beginnings in rural Indiana to the flowering of his temple in Northern California, its rising political force in San Francisco and finally history’s biggest mass-murder/suicide in the jungles of Guyana.
Jones’ vision of a utopian commune tapped into the discontent of people who — weary of the Vietnam War, assassinations and Watergate — no longer trusted conventional government and society. Because of that hunger, and Jones’ undeniable talent for exploiting it, the Peoples Temple flourished — even as cult members noticed his unusual philosophy and strange behavior. Although Jones provided health care and organized his commune expertly, he often drove his followers to work long hours, even to the point where they were not sleeping.
And he was a hypocrite as well.
“Nobody knew Jim was not celibate,” recalled one woman who is a surviving member, “until it was your turn to find out.”
Especially chilling is an audio passage of a sermon in which Jones rails against euthanasia: “Who’s going to decide when it’s time for someone to die?” he asks, comparing someone who would end life with Hitler.
Apparently, he answered his own question on Nov. 18, 1978, when his cyanide-laced fruit punch killed more than 900 people.
Nearly 28 years later, Nelson has presented an accomplished portrait of, as he puts it, the “thin lines between faith and zealotry,” an issue that has become suddenly relevant since 9/11.
— Advisory: This film contains disturbing scenes of dead bodies and strong language.