Jonestown: The Life and Death of the Peoples Temple


The new doc by filmmaker Stanley Nelson about Jim Jones and his Peoples Temple is fundamental viewing for anyone interested in faith, the varieties of religious experience, and the last, gasping death of the utopian philosophies of the 60’s (though this final rattle happens in ’78).

I was 7 years old when over 900 people, almost all US citizens, committed suicide in the jungles of French Guyana. This event and the death of Elvis are the only two news stories I can remember from my early youth. My grandfather on my Mother’s side had died shortly before the news hit that a Congressman had been assassinated by a cult and that a mass suicide had followed. It all resonated with me in a way that it never would’ve previous to the loss of my mother’s father. And I’m sure that the two experiences in tandem forged my lifelong obsession with belief structures and the spiritual dimension of human existence.

Faith brings out our greatest beauty and our deepest flaws. Brings us together and tears us down. Illuminates and blinds.

This film is a fine exploration of that inherent dichotomy, but it’s not perfect. Nelson skims over the early days of the church to make more screen time for the fateful, and admittedly engaging, final day. This robs us of some of the broader social context of the largest mass suicide in modern history. He also rushes past the descent of Jim Jones from idealism into messianic, solipsistic insanity. I would’ve gladly sat through another hour of this film just to get at the pith of his dysfunction. Jones clearly had vision and influence, and was an undeniable force in the racial integration of religious communities at the time.

But I’m nitpicking. When the final day begins to unroll, the film becomes so gut wrenching in its depiction of the crazy mechanics of how it all went down that it brought me to tears.

What comes through in all of this is the idea that in the end it wasn’t so much the madman who kept these people invigorated and hopeful and filled with life. It was the community those people had built for themselves. It was each other. And in that there is some sad solace. The madman was just a bookshelf, but the books, the books were those people. Those lovely arcadians and dancing utopians, all so hungry for a more loving, less judgmental world. They were people who simply woke up one day from a long dream and realized that they were far, far too lost in the jungle to ever make it back home again.

I wonder if we, as a species, will ever be able to believe in our collective power without a charismatic Napoleon to gather and goad us.

Or does it take a monster?

Try to see it if you can.

Here’s the Trailer.And here is the complete tape found in a tape recorder under Jim Jones’ chair after the mass suicide in Jonestown on November 18, 1978.

Posted on by Joshua Dysart Posted in Film & TV, Journal, Religion

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