Film Notes

Another Look at Jonestown

Friday, June 9, 2006

The annual Silverdocs documentary film festival, which begins Tuesday, asks and explores unusual questions: How does a young woman turn into an armed revolutionary? ("Guerrilla Girl" on Wednesday and Thursday.) What is life like for an African Nazi in post-apartheid South Africa? ("His Big White Self" on Thursday.) Who are those musicians who dress like nurses and sing about God? ("Danielson: A Family Movie" on June 17.) These are among the films screening through June 18 at the AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring; schedules and the full line-up of events are online at .

One of the festival's most intriguing offerings, screening June 17, asks questions most people probably thought were answered long ago. Why did the followers of cult leader Jim Jones commit mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana? In Stanley Nelson's "Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple," the award-winning filmmaker looks at the events leading up to Nov. 18, 1978, when more than 900 Peoples Temple members drank cyanide-laced Kool-Aid and died en masse. What happened that day is etched in collective memory; knowing what happened before that changes the picture a bit.

"What I knew about it was [that] over 900 crazy people died in the jungle following this madman," Nelson says. "When you tell people [you're making] a film on Jonestown, people wonder what more is there to tell, what more is there to say." The answer seemed clear: "I think most people looked at it like it was this crazy guy, that they all went down to the jungle and committed suicide." If nothing else, Nelson says with a laugh, "it would have been really hard to get a thousand crazy people together."

The director found a wealth of material on Peoples Temple and Jones, from followers' home movies, photographs, newspapers, even audio recordings made by Jones and his followers. In fact, the film was inspired by a radio broadcast on the 25th anniversary of the suicide. "My wife and I heard some [former] members of Peoples Temple on the radio," he says. "We were so amazed by the story that they told," about how they joined Jones's church to find a racially integrated community, and that "they'd been able to live out their ideals."

That Jones preached racial integration, communal living and social justice comes as something of a surprise. The church ran well-appointed homes for its elderly members, provided health care for all and gave its members the sense of being part of a utopian social movement.

Nelson interviewed former Jones followers who speak candidly, at times with humor and joy, about their experiences in the church. Ultimately, Nelson says, he learned that "Peoples Temple really delivered on a lot of its promises: that people would live in an integrated community, that older people were taken care of."

Nelson says he didn't aggressively pursue former Jones followers. "I didn't want to play the evil producer and push people into an interview." After all, "there are people who have not told their kids, who have not even told their spouses."

Jones's fastidious archiving yielded a profusion of material. "Peoples Temple audio-recorded everything," Nelson says. "There were over 400 audio tapes of Jim Jones preaching, all the way up to the last day" -- and the infamous "death tape," in which Jones implores his followers to "go to sleep," to "die with a degree of dignity."

In the film's final scenes, those who survived the mass suicide -- because they were away from Jonestown that day or, like Tim Carter and Stanley Clayton, escaped into the jungle afterward -- describe losing their family members. In one heartbreaking scene, Carter recounts his wife and son dying in his arms, then says: "They were just [expletive] slaughtered. There was nothing dignified about it. It had nothing to do with revolutionary suicide. . . . It was just senseless waste."

"Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple" will screen June 17 at 7:45. The AFI Silver Theatre is at 8633 Colesville Rd. in Silver Spring. Call 877-362-7849 or 301-495-6700 for tickets and information.

-- Christina Talcott

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