When we think of the 1970s, we generally think of Vietnam and Watergate, the Me Decade and disillusionment, double-digit inflation and the American hostages in Iran. The '70s as a decade has not quite reached the iconic status of the '60s; one thinks of the '70s as the less distinguished, but no less volatile sequel to that convulsive decade.
Over the past few years, a number of documentary filmmakers have revisited the 1970s, examining and uncovering the forgotten, yet seminal moments, seemingly consigned to the backwash of history. Shola Lynch's Chisholm '72: Unbought and Unbossed, Robert Stone's Guerilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst, Sam Green and Bill Siegel's The Weather Undergound these documentaries take a fresh look at individuals and events that helped define America--its culture, its character--in the late 20th century.
As the '70s rolled to a close, no one could have anticipated one of the decade's most macabre, bizarre and unsettling stories: On November 18, 1978, Jim Jones, a charismatic, yet maniacal preacher, compelled 900 of his followers, who had followed him to the Jonestown compound in Guyana, to consume cyanide-laced Kool-Aid, resulting in the largest mass murder-suicide in modern history. Despite--or perhaps because of--its lurid horror, this story was largely sublimated for 25 years. Then, true to anniversaries and their dual purpose of reflection and exhumation, the quarter-century mark inspired a flurry of reports from the media.
Filmmaker Stanley Nelson was listening to one of these reports in 2003, and it inspired him to investigate the event further. "I think my reaction in 1978 was similar to most people--shock, and also feeling that this was this weird thing, where over 900 crazy people had followed this crazier preacher down to Guyana and killed themselves," he recalls. "For the 25th anniversary I heard some Peoples Temple members on the radio, and I was just shocked by their story. They sounded so sane, only this time they were basically middle-aged people, and they talked about Peoples Temple in a very different way than I had ever heard about. They talked about being part of something bigger than themselves, part of a church that was socially active, and that's why they joined. They talked with a great deal of love for other members of the Peoples Temple. And it was so different from what I had heard that I started to think about it as a film. The more I started looking into it, the more fascinated I became: That Jim Jones was white, that 70 or 80 percent of the members were African-American, that he was from a small rural town in Indiana, that Peoples Temple members were of all ages--young people, older people, all together, white and black...The more I dug into the story, the more there was."
Much of Nelson's work-- The Black Press: Soldiers without Swords (1999); Marcus Garvey: Look for Me in the Whirlwind (2001); The Murder of Emmett Till (2003)--has focused on figures and events from more distant history. In making Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, Nelson had the benefit of engaging recent history. "For a filmmaker, 25 or 30 years is kind of a golden period because it has the benefit of time passing, and we can take a fresh look at it," he notes. "But there are also people alive and well, and there are videos and stills and audios, all this other material that exists. We get the best of both worlds. And I think that's why there have been many great films that have been made recently about that period."
For Nelson, the 1970s were an answer, of sorts, to the '60s. "The '60s were a time when the culture in this country made profound and dramatic shifts, but that didn't really catch up until the '70s. There were things that the avant garde was into in the '60s that really took hold in the general culture in the '70s. So that's why the '70s are really so intriguing--the dress, the way of talking, integration. Those things really took hold, and you really started to see a real shift."
"In some ways Jonestown was the end of the '60s and '70s," he continues. "It was the end of the utopian, 'everything is groovy, everything is wonderful, let's all get together, it's gonna work out.' I think one thing that Jonestown said to so many people was that there is a dark underside of what can happen when you give yourself up to somebody you trust too much."
This dark side and the horrific ending to the Jonestown story obviously overshadowed what was a fascinating utopian experiment, one that attracted a congregation of over one thousand members--and one that left many survivors, including some who had escaped the final day at Jonestown. For Nelson, the mission was, in some ways, to make the story of the Peoples Temple sensible and comprehensible. "One of things I really wanted to do was to have an audience understand why people would join Peoples Temple, why they would stay in," he explains. "We thought that it would be almost possible to make audience members say, 'Oh, yeah, I would've drunk the Kool-Aid.' We wanted to get you there that day, and once we got you there that day, then you feel how the events of that day can catch you up. You're just caught up in this whirlwind, this swirl, and it's too late to stop."
The survivors were obviously key to telling this story, and it took a good documentarian to draw these stories out. "The survivors have kept in touch with each other, so once we started making contact with one or two, we would get introductions to the others, and we were very low key about what we were doing," Nelson explains. "We didn't press, we just wanted them to talk about your experiences at Peoples Temple. The first time we talked, we talked off the record, and we said, 'You decide whether you want to be in the film or not. That's your decision and we'll honor it.' We ended up finding 40 members of the Peoples Temple, and we ended up doing 35 interviews for the film."
The interviews are enhanced by the footage--both visual and audio--that Peoples Temple survivors had saved, including the chilling "Death Tape," as well as scenes from a film that was never completed about Peoples Temple. There were other fortuitous discoveries. "We found an album that Peoples Temple had recorded in a studio that gives you a sense of the music in Peoples Temple and why people joined," Nelson says. "It was gospel music, and it was just great. Besides the nuts and bolts of making the film--the music, the footage, the audio recordings of Jim Jones preaching that we were able to assemble--I think one of the things that really amazed me was how much a part of Bay Area politics and life Peoples Temple was. This was not a fringe organization; Jim Jones was head of the housing commission in San Francisco. They were given a lot of credit with helping George Moscone get elected mayor of San Francisco."
And it all ended--for Moscone, assassinated nine days after Jonestown, and for Jones and his Peoples Temple. What lessons can we take from the Jonestown story? "That's a hard question because it's such a sad story," Nelson reflects. "It's a story of people who went into this thing with really good intentions and trusted something, and were betrayed almost because of that. There are a couple of things that I always think about in the film that we struggled to include in the film. There's a part where this woman was stripped naked in front a group of people by Jim Jones and the followers. They humiliated her and talked about her body, and Tim Carter [one of the survivors] says, 'I knew it was wrong, but I didn't do one thing to stop it.' And that's part of the lesson of Peoples Temple. It's death by little cuts. They're slowly giving away their humanity, little piece by little piece, until it's gone, until this huge thing happens.
"Another guy in the film says, 'I gave my will and my rights to Jim Jones because I thought he had a better plan,'" Nelson continues. "They're going along with this guy; he knows the way, only they lose their humanity because of him. I also think about what the film says about religion in this time, where there's hyper religion all over the world, and in this country, too. A lot of times there's not a lot of questioning about it, and that's carried to its extreme."
Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, distributed through Seventh Art Releasing, is currently playing in Los Angeles and New York. The film opens in San Francisco, Berkeley and San Rafael, Calif. this Friday, November 3, and will be rolling out to theaters across the country through February 2007. Jonestown will air on PBS' American Experience in April 2007. Check www.firelightmedia.org.
Thomas White is editor of Documentary.