Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Jonestown: The Life and Death of the Peoples Temple

Jonestown: The Life and Death of the Peoples Temple (Stanley Nelson, 2006) [8]
This is a spellbinding, engrossing documentary that is just as frightening as any good horror movie. The story of Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple is a familiar one to most people, at least the aspect of the mass deaths at the Temple's compound in Guyana. Nelson digs deeper to give a thorough journalistic coverage to the story, going back into Jones' troubled childhood in Indiana and the Temples early, idealistic days in rural Northern California. The most interesting coverage the film gives is to the idea of The Peoples Temple itself. Jones was preaching a forcefully integrated, pro-socialist message that appealed to the poor (and mostly African-American) by offering them some glimmer of hope. What's fascinating is how Jones adapted the black Pentecostal tradition and adapted it to fit his church. It can be seen as a very shrewd move in terms of attracting African-Americans as well as using the socialist message to attract whites. The film really focuses on the character of Jones himself, as he starts off as an idealistic, admirable preacher and ends up an authoritarian and completely paranoid of losing all the substantial power he has gained over his followers. I get the feeling that Jones used his philosophy of hope purely as a way to put himself in a position of power and influence. Jones often used his congregation as instruments in political protests and was involved in political decision making in San Francisco. It's clear by the Temple's end in Guyana, Jones was more concerned with hanging on to his power than actually caring about his congregation or the original message he preached to them. As for Jonestown, it's been told so many times that it's hard to get much new out of it, but from the interviews Nelson conducted, a frightening picture of the church's final days is shown which should leave many viewers disturbed and shaken.

Two issues always brought up with Jonestown and the Temple are should they be considered a cult and was the ending at Jonestown a mass suicide or murder? This is where the film still leaves questions but my personal opinion is divided. Many people joined the Peoples Temple in true hope that what Jones was preaching was to come about. It's hard to argue against what he was saying, but by Jonestown it's clear that his personality was more important than the message. That to me makes the Temple a cult. About the mass suicide? From the interviews of those who escaped, it sounds like the people were surrounded by armed guards with no choice but to drink the cyanide laced Kool-Aid. That to me sounds like murder. But there is no clear answer to both, as the film shows. But it still is an informative and disturbing look at its subject.

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