When my boss at Darlow Smithson Productions in London read out the list of stories that would be featured in the new television series of Seconds from Disaster, there was one event that stood out for me: “Jonestown.” It’s one of those words that the majority of people here in Britain associate with a bizarre mass suicide of Americans, in a remote jungle, a long time ago. A few may also recall seeing haunting footage of piles of dead bodies lying around in fields and an open air pavilion. I wanted to know more. How could over 900 people be compelled to take their own lives, apparently at the behest of one man?
I asked if I could work on this story for the next series of National Geographic Channel’s successful drama/documentary strand. That was in late August. Since then I have buried myself in articles and books, watched TV programmes – some good, some bad, some plain crazy. Each one struggled to make sense of the distressing scenes from deep in the South American jungle, revealed to a shocked world almost 33 years ago. The dead children and babies; the grieving relatives and decades of pain and suffering; the anger that this could ever have happened. I was amazed there were any survivors.
These survivors are the individuals whom I hope will help this programme achieve its ambition: to investigate afresh the chain of events that led up to the hours of death on 18 November 1978. We are just beginning the next phase of production; contacting and talking to people who were at Jonestown, in the hope that some will agree to a filmed interview. It is up to our team to listen to and understand their stories on a personal as well as a journalistic level.
For a regular documentary, talking to potential contributors means preparing clear questions in order to elicit equally clear answers, be they politicians or scientists. However this is no normal assignment. The reasons for this tragedy is not, and can never be, clear cut in the way that a mechanical failing on an aeroplane or a fault line in the earth’s crust can at least provide an explanation and possibly a level of comfort for those associated with other disasters (even if it cannot bring back the dead). Extreme and complex human emotions and motivations are present at every turn, and the “why”s and “how”s and “what-if”s are personal to every individual associated with the tragedy.
The more people we talk to, the closer we will come to doing justice to an incredible story that arguably has more to teach us today than at any time since 1978. The United States, along with the rest of the world, remains in the grip of economic, political and cultural turmoil, which are too resonant of the backdrop to the heyday of Peoples Temple in the mid-1970s to feel entirely comfortable.
(Sally Brindle is a producer for Darlow Smithson Productions on the National Geographic Channel’s Seconds from Disaster series. She may be reached at Sally.Brindle@darlowsmithson.com.)