Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple (Seventh Art, NR)

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By the time Congressman Leo Ryan headed to Guyana for his ill-fated investigation of the Peoples Temple, the façade of any real unity quickly faded.

 

It's a mind-blowing true story, Jonestown. On Nov. 18, 1978, over 900 people committed suicide by drinking cyanide-laced Kool-Aid at the behest of the Reverend Jim Jones, an Indiana preacher who used his boundless empathy for the poor and underprivileged to recruit members to his "Peoples Temple" religious community. How did Jones gain such power? What could possibly make so many human beings follow him into oblivion instead of getting the hell away from his twisted version of an alternative life?

Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple provides many of the answers, although you still can't help scratching your head in disbelief when it's over. This effective documentary, directed by Stanley Nelson (who also lensed 2005's Sweet Honey in the Rock), utilizes powerful reflections by surviving Peoples Temple members (yes, there were some) and unsettling footage of Jones himself to trace the evolution of a nightmare. Jones had a troubled childhood (don't these guys always?) and seldom fit in with any group when he was growing up in smalltown Indiana. But he gained a sense of community in church, the film tells us, and liked the power that pastors seemed to have over their congregations. When Jones finally gained the pulpit himself, his open-door policy in a racially divided community earned him followers, but also considerable mistrust.

"Jim was breaking new ground in race relations," says one survivor. "He was hated and despised by many in the white community." For this and other reasons, Jones eventually moved his burgeoning religious "family" from rural Indiana to rural California. Jones chose a small town called Ukiah because Jones read an article in Esquire that said the town, nestled in a mountain valley, was among nine places you'd likely survive should there be a nuclear war. Footage is shown of Jones' numerous buses making the trek west, and we also hear from a woman who was pressured into having sex with Jones in a back room on his personal bus. Apparently, Jones did this sort of thing rather often, using expert manipulation techniques to convince followers they needed to trust him and essentially turn everything they had over to him and the community. One man explains how members had to give Jones their paychecks, and then make do with a mere $5 a week allowance.

Yet the number of Temple members grew from 81 in 1966 to over a thousand five years later. But whatever noble ideals the Temple may have strived for (growing their own healthy crops, celebrating the diversity of humanity across racial, sexual and age boundaries) were soon diminished by Jones' increasingly erratic behavior and paranoia. He didn't trust that his flock could stay safe from the ills of American society or from meddling intruders, so he moved them to the jungles of Guyana in South America. "We all wanted to go," says Juanell Smart. "It looked like freedom."

It may well have been such initially, and footage of the throngs singing and dancing at communal gatherings and laughing together shows that there were idyllic moments. But this was only on the surface, and Jones' constant, day-long loudspeaker directives and discouragement of any Temple members communicating with anyone but him started convincing more and more of them that something was very wrong with this ever-anxious man. By the time Congressman Leo Ryan headed to Guyana for his ill-fated investigation of the Peoples Temple, the façade of any real unity quickly faded.

"When word got out that people were leaving," said a surviving member, "all hell broke loose." It's amazing how much footage Nelson and his crew had access to, including some shot the day of the ordeal. And the eloquent commentary by members like Rebecca Moore (a survivor's sister), Deborah Layton and Tim Carter is chilling in the vivid inside view it gives us of one of America's most notorious religious madmen. Coming at a time when unyielding fanaticism has lead to unimaginable carnage, the Jonestown story has a sad, familiar resonance.

But the movie, which isn't always pleasant to watch (though never less than compelling), makes it clear that Jones and others of his ilk aren't spiritual in any organic sense; they are merely self-deluded power mongers who refuse to consider anyone's perspective but their own. And for almost a thousand souls one November day, by the time this grim reality started to sink in, it was far too late. Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple is a valuable cautionary tale about the dangerous intersection of religious idealism and sociopathic behavior. | Kevin Renick

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