Talking with Cults:
Conversations with a Video Director

This past summer, I came across on online posting for a music video for the song “Go Outside” by a duo called Cults, with video production by Isaiah Seret. The music was upbeat and delightful, although the lyrics were difficult to understand. The video included film clips from Redwood Valley, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Guyana, and many of the clips were recognizable, if not familiar, to anyone who has seen documentary works on Peoples Temple.

The problem with the video, as I first saw it, was that – executed with superb precision by director Isaiah Seret – the faces of several Temple members shown in the documentary footage had been replaced with those of the duo in Cults, so that it looked as though the two had actually been in all those places, with Temple members joining in the song.

My first reaction was perhaps more angry than reasoned – after all, my head was one of the first replaced! – but I couldn’t figure out why the duo had wanted to be inserted into the old footage. For the last 30+ years, the media portrayal of the Temple has prompted people to distance themselves from us, rather than to become part of us. When I posted a comment on the Boing Boing website, the director Isaiah Seret replied that this was his attempt to bring the present into the historical. He had chosen clips to show “genuine smiles and joy” – rather than Jim Jones ranting – to “reveal these are good people,” something that he realized as he looked through available film footage.

I only wish this observation were more apparent, without having to be prompted to appreciate it. Time and feedback will tell more.

I am grateful for what he wrote in one email to me, and feel it bears quoting at length.

I guess primarily I wanted to say the main thing I learned or that was revealed as I started researching is what you mentioned, that these were good people, and honestly they were like the people I held close to me, smart, with spiritual inclinations, tolerant, joyful, appreciating their experiences in a shared community. I really learned that there was nothing naive about them, and in fact I myself often yearn to have a more experiential religious tradition and would have wanted to be part of that if it was offered to me.

What I had hoped would come across in the video is … that [members of Peoples Temple] were fairly representative of all of America, multi-ethnic, and far from a fringe subculture that was an outgrowth of the 60’s.

I guess this felt like enough, to just show this humanity, but by no means did I feel this short video could be a complete picture of the community or events. As I mentioned the format doesn’t really allow for a ton of information, but the images felt undeniable. I feel this in particular when people who had never seen footage of the community watch it and tell me “look how normal and happy they all are. They don’t look like a cult at all.” And this is something I received over and over again, both as comments and in emails and when watching it with colleagues and friends. And in “normal,” I hear them saying, “they are just like us.”

Another person on the blog commented that he “knows” what had happened – it was obvious to him we were all mindless automatons, so why wasn’t it obvious to everyone? – then chided me that “time and history” were on his side. My response is what should be the focus of any story of Jonestown: rather than rehash the horror, talk of practical ways to prevent it happening again.

In a court your words would be called hearsay… but in the court of public opinion, media mentality makes its own truth… I was there – were you? And I suppose Kennedy was killed by a lone assassin with a magic bullet, after all as you point out, media = truth.

Isaiah was trying to give a different insight to what he found… if you didn’t see or hear it, so be it.

I appreciate his trying rather than sitting by doing nothing. If nothing else comes of the horror of Jonestown, maybe people can learn to speak out if they disagree with “their” leaders, be they at home, at church, in a town or state or country. Maybe if we did, there could be more good in the world.

And the fact is, I do thank Isaiah for looking further than most of the past 30 years of media hype, seeing and trying to portray the basic goodness of those who died. I also appreciate that the video itself is well done. The music is very upbeat and catchy – even hard to get out of your head after hearing it!

(Don Beck was a member of Peoples Temple for ten years. He directed the Peoples Temple children’s choir during its Redwood Valley years and made several trips to Guyana during its pioneer days. Beginning about 20 years after the tragedy, shortly after this site went online, he became one of its most dedicated researchers, transcribing Edith Roller journals, reviewing and analyzing Jonestown records released through the Freedom of Information Act, and compiling them for the first section of documents on the Jonestown Research page. He also contributed numerous articles and remembrances. Most of those writings may be found here.)

(Don died on July 9, 2021, following a lengthy illness. He was 78.)