Witness To Jonestown: A Producer’s Notes

How does a documentary filmmaker do justice in ninety minutes to an event as historically and psychologically complex as Peoples Temple and Jonestown? The answer is to accept that you can’t – but then you try to do it anyway.

I am producing Witness to Jonestown for MSNBC Films to commemorate the 30th anniversary of an event that remains unfathomable perhaps forever. It has been an awesome and oddly wondrous task. In the midst of a genuine horror story, the truth, beauty and pain of the people who inhabit it inspire awe. It is the heart of my attempt to describe the indescribable.

A certain amount of serendipity brought me to this project. It is an assignment, one that might have gone to some other producer at NBC’s Peacock Productions where I work. Fortunately for them and for me, it landed on my desk. In November 1978 I was living in the Bay Area, next door to Leo Ryan’s district, when Jonestown went down. And while I had no ties to Peoples Temple itself, I was deeply affected by the psychic earthquake Jonestown (and the Moscone /Milk murders) produced, a reaction not unlike the November fifteen years earlier when President John F. Kennedy was shot. While Peacock is largely a news-based organization that does its share of sensational stories, my work as a filmmaker has largely been long form documentaries – many of them historical — characterized by a humanistic approach. On Witness to Jonestown, I was determined to mine this sensational event for its human ore.

The challenge for me as a storyteller has been to keep the positive spirit of Peoples Temple aloft while chronicling its descent into Hell. My hours spent with former members fueled my commitment to explore the light and darkness of the Temple experience and to give viewers enough testimony and insight to understand what happened, how and why. I was struck by the variety of experience. For some it was a prison, for others it was the best place to be in a turbulent world. Still others felt both.

The people I met on this project are, as one of them says in the film, “among the best people you’d ever want to meet.” In the short time I have spent with them, I would have to agree: they are, to a person, articulate, bright, sensitive, and, to one degree or another, damaged by Jonestown. How could they not be? I could easily see many of these folks being my friends – then and now – sharing a similar passion for addressing the social and political ills of our society. Though I doubt I would have joined Peoples Temple as they did, I certainly would have related to their objectives going in. But I also know – at least I hope – that I would have been unlikely to surrender my individuality as totally as the Temple required. Yet in doing this film, I also better understand, as I hope viewers will, how people became trapped in the madness that enveloped them. It took a holocaust for it to become a cautionary tale.

The story begs epic political and psychological questions: is it possible to create a community of common purpose without a ruler, without subterfuge and fear, and without an exclusively one-way flow of information? Is it possible for a leader of such a movement to avoid becoming crazed by power? How does idealism become exploited or perverted? Can a utopian community survive without becoming paranoid and self-destructive? Do the ends ever justify the means? These are the same questions we ask about governments and mass movements, which, like Soviet Communism and National Socialism, seem always to leave mass misery in their wake. And what is a cult anyway? Even former members disagree on whether that “four-letter word” applies to Peoples Temple.

Above all, I am hoping that my version of the Peoples Temple story will shed some insight into the human psyche. For me, the film’s success hinges on its ability to peel the onion to explore these questions. It draws no conclusions — the theories posed and judgments made belong to each person I invited to tell the story. But in the composite that forms the film lies a geologic map to understanding and empathy. I am curious to see how deeply it goes.

Witness to Jonestown will premiere on MSNBC on Sunday, November 9th, 9-11pm EST. The network is planning to put up a sizeable weblink some time prior to the airdate. If you only watch one program on Jonestown, this is it.

(Stephen Stept’s online producer’s diary can be found here. For more information about the documentary Witness to Jonestown, go to http://www.jonestown.msnbc.com.)