The Jonestown Tapes: Reel-to-Reel

by David Berdass

The hundreds of audiotape available through the Jonestown Institute represent a compelling history of Peoples Temple from the 1960s through the final day. For my research of my film project, I have broken the tapes down into three categories:

1) Jim Jones’ sermons to his followers in the Temple’s several locations in California

2) Jonestown audio, featuring community meetings, White Nights, disciplinary meetings, and mass suicide

3) Jones’ recorded instructions to the community and readings of the news

1) California Sermons

These perfectly capture Jim Jones’ evolution from Reverend to “Father.” Someone casually listening might mistake this for Pentecostal-style preaching, but some closer listening reveals a man slowly deconstructing dogmatic teachings of Christianity: the idea of a God and replacing “Lord” with “Father,” throwing a Bible on the floor, and questioning a Skygod that allows – evens justifies – poverty, neglect and violence. Socialist teachings are preached through class warfare, not only with the outside world, but amongst themselves. What are you doing driving around in a Cadillac while that man over there starves every night? You call yourself a Socialist?

Coupled with this are demonstrations of Jones’ “miracles,” which are unbelievable on the printed page but simply galling to hear, as the huckster boasts about the many lives he’s saved on his blessing, the premonitions he has about those he calls up (after staff members combed through their garbage), and the cancers strangely resembling chicken livers that his staff presents to the congregation.

All of this, of course, lends itself to a perfect Act I. It sets up his mental manipulation, his fascination with socialism, his demands for allegiance – often at the expense of the family – and his circus-like performances of healings. It establishes Jim Jones’ slow-grinding motives and beliefs, and the opportunity for new persons (i.e. the audience) to start to come into contact with both.

2) Jonestown meetings

As much as a folly some of those sermons might be, the tapes made at Jonestown are a cold slap of reality: cruel, embarrassing, and tragic.

Perhaps the hardest to listen to are the sessions of various Jonestown residents taking turns “reporting” misdeeds of each other in front of all gathered (presumably mandatory for all 900+) and of course Jones presiding over these confessions. From small indiscretions, like going up for seconds in the food line, all the way up through crimes like rape, members face the large assembly of people and take their wallops, many times literally. The slaps on skin crack the listener like a whip. And then there’s Jim Jones’ gleeful response, occasionally giggling, sometimes appearing so vein-bursting upset you don’t know if he’s doing it for effect or not.

One tape in particular, Q49 Part1, inspires a wonderful montage scene of Jones prepping everyone presumably for Ryan’s imminent arrival much like a teacher/student relationship in a classroom, complete with simple “pass/fail” feedback. “Fail” means back to re-education camp. Admittedly there is a lighter tone by Jones here, as he tries to keep his people relaxed for the questions posed from outsiders in days ahead. “They ask you where your money’s at? Ask them where their money’s at. ’You need help brother, is that why you’re asking?’”

Jim Jones’ training shows in the NBC interviews of November 17th/18th. People answers questions like actors on cue, everyone is content. It took two secret notes slipped to the reporters that set things in motion on that fateful day.

And then there’s the infamous 44 minute “Death Tape” made on November 18th, 1978: It’s hard not to wince as you listen, especially as the cry of children gradually increases throughout. However, it is Jim Jones’s opening line to his mass audience – How have I loved you? – followed by his last monologue (the last of many) trying to offer a credible explanation for why more than 900 people should die: I thought this was a hell of a climax, a speech which will translate very well in the last half-hour of an emotionally exhausting three-hour film.

3) Jim Jones as News Source

The last category I place on the tapes are a collection of Jones’s recorded (filtered) news to blast throughout the Jonestown camp. While these make up a good portion of the audio which was recovered at Jonestown, Jones’ very monotone, robotic delivery makes it difficult to listen to, yet the people of Jonestown were responsible for remembering the content of these tapes. According to Tim Reiterman’s Raven, Jones was heavily sedated by his various medications when he was recording a lot of these, and you can clearly hear him slurring his sentences in a number of them.

For research purposes, I found it not terribly important to make it through each on of these sessions which are quite honestly very boring and predictable (read news, sprinkle in comments of oppression and fellow comrades-in-arms). Only a small sampling of these is needed to understand what they are about.

One Final Note…

The old reel-to-reel tapes have an eerie ghostly quality to them due to the source material. Since the reel-to-reels tapes were recorded over multiple times, many have underlining audio playing subliminally over the main track, often in slow haunting rhythms. On other occasions, the main audio has been sped up or slowed way down only to pick up at another time and place. It’s given me ideas how to frame the story, a certain start-stop-back-forward narrative that it should follow, all because of these tapes I’ve heard.

With these tapes, along with the raw footage we have of Jones both in California (grainy 16mm) and in Jonestown (grainy and video), I have been given this gift of media to study from, be inspired by, and translate from script to screen.

(David Berdass can be reached at David.Berdass@bermo.com.)

Last modified on December 27th, 2013.
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