Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple
2-1/2 (out of 4) stars
Written by Noland Walker and Marcia Smith. Directed by Stanley Nelson. 85 min. At the Bloor Cinema today at 6:30 and 9:15 p.m.
“Nobody joins a cult,” insists the former Peoples Temple member Deborah Layton in Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple.
“You join a religious organization. You join a political movement. You join with people you really like.”
She has a point, of course, and it’s one that definitely needs to be made in the context of a full-length documentary portrait of one of the most notorious cults of modern times, the Pentecostal-flavoured, socialist/utopian church founded and led by the darkly messianic, weirdly Elvis-like Reverend Jim Jones.
On the morning of Nov. 18, 1978, Jones — aware that some followers had just followed his orders and murdered a fact-finding American congressman and three journalists — managed to compel more than 900 of his congregants to kill themselves by drinking cyanide-laced Kool-Aid.
But Layton’s statement is only made more problematic by the circumstances. If nobody joins a cult, what do they believe they belong to when they’re told that the best way to enter heaven is by feeding poison to their children and themselves? And they do so?
The questions abound in Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, a movie that manages to fascinate and frustrate in near-equal measure.
It traces the foundation of Jones’ racially mixed, outwardly collective, neo-fundamentalist Peoples Church to its leader’s dreary beginnings as the misfit Indiana-born son of an alcoholic and follows his growing fascination with evangelism and eventual founding of his own church.
It moved from the Midwest, to California and eventually the jungles of Guyana in search of an unmolested paradise — yet the film never quite manages to make the connection between the idealistic yearning of the Reverend’s growing legion of acolytes and the man they followed.
On the one hand, it’s the period. Attracting an array of untethered outcasts (hippies, elderly blacks, runaways, lapsed Sunday worshippers and other stray lambs), Jones invited them into a temple that offered community, belonging, freedom and safe haven — with a little paranoia, sexual predation and bogus faith healing thrown in.
But in the meantime, the Peoples Temple was entirely in keeping with the turned-on, tuned-out, soft-revolutionary communal idealism of the moment.
And it would end up with those indelible images — seen without any diminishing of sickening power here again — of hundreds of bloated, brightly dressed corpses face down in the Jonestown mud.
At the time it felt almost indigestibly freakish. Viewed nearly 30 years later, the mass suicide at Jonestown resounds with echoes of Charles Manson, Altamont, Vietnam and even, given the Reverend’s proclivity for secrecy, sunglasses, a shoe-polish pompadour and pills, the then-recent ugly death of Elvis himself.
Listening to the chilling tapes made of Jones urging — with a blend of megalomaniacal passion and testy impatience — followers to carry out their “act of revolutionary suicide” but “Quickly! Quickly! Quickly” you realize you’re hearing yet another ruin of the 1960s tumbling into dust.
For all that has been written and said about the Jonestown incident (“I never use the word `suicide,'” says one survivor. “That man was killing us”), no one can really explain what happened or why.
With a sense of amazement that sometimes matches our own, former Peoples Temple congregates tell of the Reverend’s tendencies toward sexual exploitation (of men and women, boys and girls), drug abuse, bogus miracles, public humiliation and raging paranoia.
Yet they stayed. And they followed: from Indiana to Ukiah, Calif., to San Francisco and, ultimately, Guyana, where they died for Jim Jones.
Featuring some electrifying footage of the perpetually eye-shaded Jones at the pulpit in the U.S. and in Jonestown the day before the mass suicide — where the soon-to-be-murdered congressman Leo Ryan is seen being met with a deafening ovation after claiming to have spoken to people who say Jonestown is “the best thing that ever happened” to them — Nelson’s documentary rides an enigma right to the bitter end.
The fact is people do join cults. It’s just that nobody who does calls it that.