Nine years ago, the world watched in horror as the two towers of the World Trade Centre came down. Thanks to the modern times of everybody having a camera, every conceivable moment was recorded for posterity. For ninety minutes, the whole world stopped and watched. In the years since, we are reminded of the events at each anniversary or in the next new documentary. It is how we want it to be. We demand the right to be reminded.
And why shouldn’t we demand to be constantly reminded? There is much in the twentieth century that we missed, stuff we wish we hadn’t. We all wish there had been cameras on the Titanic sending live footage to satellites in space. We wish there were at least five more cameras in Dealey Plaza. If we are going to be honest with ourselves, we wish there had been a series of cameras throughout the streets of watch Diana crash into that tunnel in 1997, and more cameras around Columbine high school in 1999. We want to see every event from every conceivable angle.
It was different with the September 2001 events in New York, though. Many people have indicated that when they first saw the events unfold on their preferred news network, they thought they were watching a disaster film. Only when I noticed the camera angles weren’t changing every two seconds did I realize that something was amiss. We are so confused by film and fiction, the true horror too often passes us by.
Recently somebody sent me the NBC footage of Congressman Leo Ryan’s fateful trip to Guyana. It is undoubtedly the most chilling film I have ever watched. The greatest horror of this footage is the story we know will unfold which the film makers have no clue about. Near the end of the footage, NBC reporter Don Harris jokes with Ryan, “I think that I may put on the tape that I told you so.” Ryan chuckles at that and goes on to tell Harris that in some ways things were better than he expected and in other ways worse. I don’t think the congressman had a clue about his fate. On the other hand, while watching the two and a half hours of raw footage, one feels that Don Harris knew something was afoot. He never quite looks at ease. During the last-ever filmed interview with Jim Jones, there is a bit of footage taken from behind Jones and focusing on Harris. In television-speak, this angle is known as “noddies.” Generally filmed either before or after the interview itself and edited into the final cut for broadcast, noddies are the bits where the interviewer nods sympathetically at what the subject of the interview has to say. In this sequence, one can’t help but wonder if Harris knows that he could be looking at his executioner.
With very few exceptions, the faces you see are those of people who will be dead within 24 hours: all the beautiful little children, all the teenagers bursting with vitality and potential, and even the old people who all look as though they still have a long walk ahead of them.
The first third of the footage is the cameraman recording events seemingly for posterity. First the group gathers at the Georgetown airport. Many in Ryan’s party – his staff, members of the Concerned Relatives group which has asked him to investigate Jonestown, other newspeople – seem quite apprehensive. This is followed by quite a long sequence in the air doing a fly-over Jonestown. On the ground at the Port Kaituma airstrip, the group comes face to face over officialdom, which testifies to the amount of influence Jim Jones wielded over local authorities. Eventually the people board the trucks and head off to Jonestown. The first footage in the community itself is the party with which we are all familiar.
It is all very surprising, the party. Already the congressional delegation had encountered resistance both in Georgetown and at Port Kaituma, yet the people of Jonestown put on a massive show to welcome the contingent. After Ryan gives his famous “best thing that has ever happened to some of you” speech, the band sings Marvin Gaye’s “The Greatest Love.” The irony of the opening line should not be lost on the viewer. The first day’s footage ends with a rather amicable scene around Jim Jones’ table while he shows off John Victor Stoen.
The footage of November 18 starts with a few of the reporters and family members on the back of a truck who have just returned from a tour of the area. As they drive through the Jonestown gates, there are smiles aplenty. Thereafter, the atmosphere seems to leaden, subtly at first. The cameraman spies a woman and a man having a conversation. Watching the body language, you know they aren’t talking about the weather.
Despite the discernible shift in mood in some of the people, generally life carries on. A group of people in the one of the huts perform their dance routine. Elsewhere people are hanging around waiting for the congressman to leave so they may resume their lives.
But after these few shots of life that seem to capture the essence of Jonestown, the urgency changes. The shot starts on Edith Parks. The camera pans to reveal two other youths, then Marceline Jones, and then Ryan’s aide Jackie Speier. The conversation is about departure. Edith – among others – wants to leave, Marceline doesn’t want them to, Jackie is facilitating it with the NBC camera as the witness. Jones then arrives into the camera’s frame to dissuade those that want to leave. Things are very controlled, but one can’t help but feel the threat of censure and possible violence. The only eye contact that really seems to be held is when Harris interviews Jones.
Jones, at his megalomaniacal worst, shows who is boss. Harris starts by telling Jones how it is obvious that much work has been done in at the compound, but before even before he can complete the sentence, Jones is whispering something in an aide’s ear. The interview ends with Jones begging everybody to just leave them alone.
The most striking thing for me about all the footage of Jones on that last day was that his mouth seemed to be very dry. Often we see him working his tongue around his mouth. This could have been as a result of either all the narcotics he was using or the apprehension he felt. As he was having no difficulty with his mouth the night before, we have to believe the latter. Were the vats of poison already being mixed during the interview? Is that the apprehension that Jones was feeling?
Harris also interviews a few families. Anthony Katsaris ends the interview in tears. He doesn’t know if his sister Maria is lying to him. You get the feeling she is. Very few people who are interviewed are able to look Harris in the eye. When asked about stories of torture rumored to have taken place in Jonestown, the replies are incredulous denials that come even before the questions have been completed. One young lady looks away with each answer she gives and only offers firm eye-contact with the completion of each reply. Her friend is even more curious: she tilts her head to one side, getting as close as humanly possible to rest her head on her shoulder. Is she being as coy as she looks, or is she just uncomfortable with the questions? Everybody is fairly convincing when they say it is the best place they have ever been.
In the meantime, two storms have been brewing off camera. The one that almost seals the fate of Jonestown is that the group of defectors has expanded. Jim Jones assures one of the young men that he is welcome to come back at any time. Even the ones who lied, he says, are welcome to return.
Suddenly the footage turns tense. First there is an announcement over the public address system calling Bonnie Simon to the radio room. A little later we see Bonnie throwing a bit of a fit, shouting at unseen people who are taking her children away. “You bring those kids back here!” she demands. Men try to placate her when Marceline arrives to intervene. “Mother,” Bonnie cries, “they’re taking my kids.”
The next minutes of the footage en route to the air strip is silent. The truck starts to move, then stops. Leo Ryan walks purposely with a group of men to the truck. His shirt is undone. There is blood on him. Initially he climbs onto the back of the truck. but later the truck stops again and he gets in front.
The driver battles the wet roads, and people are essentially silent.
Eventually they arrive at the Port Kaituma airstrip. Don Harris interviews Ryan. It seems that all of a sudden, lots of people representing real numbers now wanted to leave, and Ryan took it as his responsibility to help everybody who wanted to get out. He goes on to say that there were high levels of agitation and real fear. People didn’t want to return to their dorms alone for fear of attack.
The interview ends with Harris asking Ryan what action will follow. Before Ryan can complete his answer, the cameraman, Bob Brown runs out of tape. The next tape rolls for just three minutes and four seconds, tilts from the ground as it records gunfire from a truck, then blacks out. Bob Brown has just given his life for the last bit of footage.
Nowadays, just about everybody is able to take video footage. A mobile telephone is all that is need to become a post-modern Fellini. We only have Bob Brown’s footage to try and fill in the pictures that are missing from the story of Jonestown that is in our head. All the survivors from that day – and there are very few – have their own version of the story. Every experience was different for everybody. The only way we as observers would be able to digest the enormity of the disaster is if each of the nearly one thousand people at Jonestown on that day had their own camera and given their own commentary.
Not that this would have helped at all. With each fact we learn, many more questions we have.
Why is this footage so disturbing? It is disturbing for many reasons. The inevitability of what you are watching. You look at all the people singing and dancing and just getting on with life, and you know that by sundown, all but a small handful will be dead. You look at Jonestown in the sunlight on the last day, and you get a tiny taste of the work that had gone into this little hamlet. You know from everything you have read about Jonestown that even the survivors almost didn’t survive their demons after the event.
But most of all, it is disturbing because there is no video or sound editor who has manipulated your emotions.
What you are watching and what you are seeing is the raw soundtrack of impending waste of huge human potential. You are watching nearly a thousand people who are preparing to bow to the will of a man who is preparing to take them all with him in death.
(Niels Colesky is a regular contributor to the jonestown report. His other article in this edition is Jonestown Survivor – An Insiders Look. He can be reached here.)