A few months ago I stood in line for two hours to see Stanley Nelson’s documentary at the Tribeca Film festival, but I didn’t make it in. So to satisfy my curiosity I began to read about Peoples Temple on my own. That was when my obsession began.
The Jonestown tragedy was like no event I had ever heard of, particularly because the community was founded with such good intentions. In the wake of a disaster like Hurricane Katrina, I found the plight of Peoples Temple very moving. After much research, I was tempted to begin a screenplay about Jonestown, but I wasn’t sure how to present a story of such complexity. To my knowledge there has never been a narrative film which has dealt effectively with the subject matter of religious sects, political activist groups or “cults.” I tried to find out why.
In her book Hearing the Voices of Jonestown, Mary McCormick Maaga explain how “anti-cultists” study Jonestown from an “us versus them” point of view, basing analysis on the assumption that Peoples Temple members were different and abnormal – not like “us.” I didn’t want to make the same mistake. I wanted to put myself in the people’s shoes.
Then, while reading through the transcripts on this website, I stumbled upon the tape of the children of Jonestown debating socialism vs. capitalism. I was fascinated. The children were so educated, more so than any children I’ve known, or myself at that age. Aside from that, they sounded no different than any other well adjusted kids.
I started imagining what it must have been like for a child, having been brought into the community, what it felt like to grow up in a socialist society, free from TV or consumerism and to be surrounded by friends and family. What did the children think of Jim Jones? What was it like to see his intimidating figure presiding over meetings in the pavilion, to hear his voice in the night and to fear the “beast” that was rumored to live in the jungle. The most amazing thing about children is their ability to grow and thrive, to find normalcy in the bleakest of circumstances. There is some hope in that.
So far, that’s the direction my research has taken. I’ve started working on the first draft of a script about fictional characters living in Jonestown with a strong focus on the lives of the very brave children. I do hope I can do their story justice.
(Adeline Colangelo may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)