A Director Under the Influence of History

I make music videos. How this process often works is that someone sends me a song and asks me to submit a concept for a video to that song. When I received Cults’ hauntingly beautiful track, “Go Outside,” I was inspired to bring the band inside the world of Jim Jones’ famous religious community, Peoples Temple. This was motivated by the song’s sample of Jones’ voice from the Death Tape during the opening intro, and then carried by its overall lyrical content. Even though this was an artistic inspiration and goal, it was obviously a controversial subject to work with, and I didn’t want the video to be exploitative or disturbing. In fact, as someone with a master’s degree in religious studies, and having spent much of my life learning about various religious traditions, I took on the world’s most infamous cult as an artistic endeavor with a great deal of caution and perhaps trepidation.

My decision to commit to the project came when I received a DVD with over two and half hours of “home videos” from Peoples Temple from this website. I was surprised to see how normal everyone was – clean cut, well shaved, ethnically and culturally diverse, happy – with nothing naïve or dismissive about them. Essentially they could be any of us. Of course I had seen bits and pieces of this footage in various documentaries, but watching the raw clips, I couldn’t help but notice their similarity to my current community of friends – i.e., smart, tolerant, with spiritual inclinations and a yearning for shared community. This really raised the bar for my video, as I had realized I simply wanted to re-tell and humanize their story – the story of the thousands of people who were swept into the whirlwind of Jim Jones. I decided I would use the many captured images of joy and melody to carry the story/song, then place the band as part of this energy. Beyond this, I was determined not to put an extra spin on their lives or manipulate some kind of extra drama.

As we combed through the footage, I realized I needed to contact some of the other producers who had captured Peoples Temple on film. I visited and got footage from both David Gottlieb and Don Como, who also explained how they shot the original scenes, and further accessed archival footage from NBC and the California Historic Society.

With all this footage, we began filing the band in various matching or similar scenarios, using sets and greenscreen. With the support of my visual effects supervisor Bill Gilman, my cinematographer Matthew Lloyd, and my editor Luke Lynch, we completed the rough cut of the work. But we didn’t consider the project to be done.

Some of the producers were quite concerned as to how Temple survivors may react to it. This was the primary consideration, since all parties were in agreement that there was merit in remembering history in general and this point in history in particular. We were heartened to learn that a handful of survivors who saw it appreciated the light in which we showed the community, particularly the video’s focus on the people, as opposed to exploiting the graphic images of the final tragedy. Of course, we were also glad to hear that they recognized the artistic quality to the video – the merger and separation of music and news, of art and documentary – and several even talked about enjoying the song itself.

With this awareness, along with a clear understanding that this video would open a number of challenging and sensitive dialogues, we released the video through the internet magazine, Boing Boing, which included a short director’s statement along with the video. The response from my side was overwhelmingly positive. The folks I talked to called the video powerful and effective. I received a handful of emails ranging from people who had barely, or even never, heard of Jonestown, along with others that were inspired to share this with a younger generation. There were hundreds of comments on various blogs, ranging from “exploitative” to “important” and others sparking a debate over whether this is similar to a movie such as Schindler’s List (which was debatably exploitative/educational) since it is ultimately promoting a band.

07-04On this point I do want to mention that I recognize that bands makes music videos to get people aware of their music. On one hand they are free to watch, as opposed to movies and documentaries, but on the other hand, a good video can increase record sales. This latter point has yet to be proven, though, which is largely why the music video business is 10 percent the size it was a decade ago. Personally I see music videos as one of the sole creative visual acts offered to society free of charge. Further, as a director, I see how the bands are often pressured to play it “safe” and make something easily digestible to their core audience. It is only in rare cases that the band wants to do something conceptually risky for the sake of art.

We all knew this song was a classic example. Despite its potential to present a sunshine-y summer imagery to drive record sales, the band instead wanted to go with our Peoples Temple concept, a decision I applaud. And if by chance the band does have some financial success – though sadly these days many non-pop-star artists often end up owing their record label money for investing in the recording and videos – I will encourage them to be good world citizens with their profits.

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The most significant feedback I received for this video was from Don Beck, a former Temple member who first commented on the Boing Boing article under his online name of “Eiredon.”

As one of the people whose face was changed digitally to one of a band member and as a survivor who lost children (pictured in the footage), I fail to see the artistic statement in this music video; rather I find the exploitation of myself, my dead children and friends little more than a way to promote a song and make money. I have tried to “hear” how it is more than exploiting horror to make money. The music is nice, the words are hard to hear and then make little comment beyond reinforcing that “cults” (like the footage shows) are just bad crazies. I don’t understand what insights this “artistic work” into the inside of Peoples Temple, as the director states. The photos don’t do it and the words don’t either. It seems the director’s insights came from reading more of what has been written by survivors, relatives, etc. I would welcome an article on this experience sharing his insights learned – alluded to in the Director’s Statement above – the music video just doesn’t do that.

I responded immediately to him:

I apologize if there is a sense that this video promised insights. You are definitely correct in that there were a number of personal insights I gained through this process… While preparing to make it, I realized many of the younger people I knew did not know the story of Jonestown. Or if they had heard of it, they simply knew the kool-aid expression out of context. So what emerged during the artistic process was an increased belief that this is a story worth knowing and remembering and ultimately that we can learn a lot from history. … I was still moved to be part of telling (and remembering) this story, in the way that I was capable of showing it.

Don and I have been in frequent contact since that initial exchange. I must say I really appreciated his direct engagement. We have discussed and learned a great deal about each other and our views (which were very aligned). Ultimately, much of what we wrote has informed much of my writing in this article.

For his last comment on the blog, Don wrote: “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.”

Don is right: the most valuable take-away from any historical situation like this is to question leadership. This is not new. In historic Tibet there were manuals written on ways to question a spiritual leader to insure they are authentic and have their students’ best interests at heart. I am far from anti-leader or anti-guru, but I wish we all felt that it is socially appropriate to question teachers, that there is nothing blasphemous about critical inquiry or dissent.

While it’s easy in hindsight for us to dismiss Jim Jones and the tragedy as some kind of anomaly in history, through making this video, I learned that at the beginning these followers were promised two things we all want: a meaningful life (closer to God); and financial security. These are two things that are very hard to pass up. And lest we think that we ourselves could never become susceptible to someone like Jones, we should remember that we have all been victims of influence or peer pressure in our lives – whether great or small, good or bad, inspiring or misleading – because we are social beings, each of us living in different communities and groups, all of which by definition expect some degree of conformity, compromise and adherence to negotiate standards of behavior. Even so, let us also remember we are all the guardians of our minds, and through our thoughts and actions we are free to decide and question what is wholesome and unwholesome, helpful and harmful.

(Isaiah Seret can be reached at subjectobject@isaiahseret.com.)