Documentary Raises Issues for Future Films to Explore

I was fortunate enough to watch the movie Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple with a small group of people whose knowledge about Peoples Temple was limited to the standard fare offered by popular culture: a group of people followed their crazed leader to the jungles of South America, where they obediently killed themselves and each other. They knew very little of the Temple’s work with poor people, its history of promoting integration, and its system of care for the group’s elders.

The vast number of videos and photos of Peoples Temple and Jonestown used in the film was impressive. Services from Indiana, Ukiah, and San Francisco seemed to burst with energy as people danced in the aisles and sang old spirituals. And laughed. The bus footage was great. Consensus was that Jonestown was a beautiful place and an impressive result of pure human effort and determination.

After the movie, our discussion revolved around the survivors’ interview segments, the merging of socialism and Christianity and, of course, the treatment of the elders. The conclusion was a sincere sadness that a group with such great goals would come so close to creating serious help for the poor San Franciscans and end so tragically. We could use a group like that in San Francisco today. I thought their generally positive reactions were a good thing, and that if the general public responds as well as this small group, the movie could make inroads into the folklore legacy that has encapsulated the Peoples Temple and Jonestown stories for the past thirty years. It is about time.

Unfortunately, however, the movie continues a number of trends in the recent offerings of Jonestown movies and plays. Understandably there is only so much time in a movie and not everything can get mentioned, but the basic story this film tells – even though it’s told well – is locked into a familiar pattern. We no longer need to know A, B, and C, but we should learn how A, B, and C, interrelate.

Though I am not sure why, many of the latest productions have also ignored Marceline Jones and Lynetta Jones. This film is no different. Lynetta Jones was a strong influence on her son, and her presence at Temple meetings validated all of his claims about his youth. Somehow she deserves more than a passing mention. Marceline’s omission is equally inexplicable. Jones’ wife was essentially the glue that kept many people in the Temple. She was a professional; she worked for the state of California and was a registered nurse; she presented a positive, articulate and intelligent face to the Temple when she lobbied City Hall. She was Mother. Some discussion and analysis of her role in the Temple would seem important.

There also seemed to be an effort on the director’s part for some sensationalism. He includes a story about Jim Jones killing a cat when he was a child. A neighbor recalls that fifty years ago a young friend told him he saw Jones kill the animal. Old hearsay from a child a half century ago is slim evidence. I am not saying he did it or did not do it, but it seemed like an attempt to make Jones look deviant and cruel. It was overplayed and there is no need to do it.

Another common overplayed theme that has recently surfaced is that Jones was a sexual deviant. He had sex with both men and women. Many gay and bisexual people who see this film will wonder why it was being presented in such a backhanded way. It feels like Jones’ stable of women would be expected, but his hitting on male members is crossing the line. A survivor said he was “petrified” when he realized he was in a room with a number of gay and bisexual men, but it is not clear what exactly he was petrified of. It seemed like a sentiment expressed by a straight interviewee, presented to a straight interviewer, and aimed at a straight audience. If that was the director’s intent, that’s fine. I’m left scratching my head and wondering when we will move beyond the tee-hee factor.

This is not to say that the movie did not have some profound moments. A number of survivors used the term “dysfunctional family” to describe Peoples Temple. That is something many audience members will understand and help them relate to the group.

Survivor Janet Shular also questions the purpose of the loyalty tests. “Well, it wasn’t about our loyalty because we were demonstrating loyalty all the time. Coming there, being there in the meetings, sitting, listening, you know, supporting, working and I thought it had a lot more to do with Jim’s sense of rehearsal. Did he feel like he was potent and omnipotent enough to really get people to kill themselves when he said so? And that frightened the hell out of me.” Instead of just recounting the event, Shular offers a rare interpretation of Jones’ intent.

Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple is a valuable tool to begin long overdue and important discussions about the Jonestown tragedy. But it can’t be the only one.

(Michael Bellefountaine was a frequent contributor to the jonestown report before his death in May 2007. His complete collection of writings for the site may be found here.)