Charles Garry Documentary Incorporates Jonestown Experience

by Hrag Yedalian

Jim Jones, Charles Garry, Richard Dwyer
Jim Jones, Charles Garry, Richard Dwyer.
Jonestown, November 18, 1978

It was a little over two and a half years ago when the idea was conceived. At the time, I was beginning my final semester at UC Berkeley and was excited to be enrolled in a history seminar titled “Rethinking the Sixties.” In addition to dealing with an array of literature produced during the decade, we were required to write a paper that focused on a specific aspect of the period. After our first class meeting, I immediately approached my instructor about my plan: “I’m interested in working on a biographical essay about attorney Charles Garry.” The idea was simple, but it entailed a lot of work, because, other than his 1977 autobiography Streetfighter in the Courtroom, not much printed material about the man existed. Although I planned use the autobiography as an outline, I wanted my paper to rely almost entirely on oral narratives provided by those individuals-family members, close friends, clients and attorneys-who knew him best. I didn’t realize it at the time, but my work on a feature-length documentary film about Garry’s life had begun.

Up to that point, I had spent most of my time studying two subjects: the history of the Armenian people, and the history of twentieth-century social movements in the United States. Garry was one of the very few individuals who tied both of these vastly different fields together. Having survived the 1894-96 massacres initiated by the Ottoman Empire against its Armenian population, in which over 300,000 lives were claimed, Garry’s father fled to the United States in search of a new life. Eventually settling in Fresno, California, however, Garry and his family faced extreme levels of poverty and a brand of discrimination reserved for the area’s expanding Armenian community. These factors helped push Garry into the world of progressive politics; many years down the line, he acquired the unique position of being the attorney for an array of Movement figures, including Black Panther Party co-founders Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale. His story was both fascinating and inspiring.

“Do you know that Charles Garry was one of the few survivors of Jonestown?” a friendly employee at the KPFA offices in Berkeley asked me one day. “Really?” I responded, not having a clue about what the man was talking about. “Yup, but anyway, you should call the archives. They’ll help you find what you are looking for.” At the time of this conversation, several weeks had passed and my search for material on Garry had expanded. Knowing that my research paper would be complimented by some kind of video presentation on his life-a camcorder would always accompany me to the interviews-I decided to look for any source that could shed more light on Garry’s dealings with the Panthers and other political progressives. The terms “Peoples Temple” and “Jonestown” would invariably pop up during such searches. And, as always, I would ignore them in favor for the ones that would read “New Haven Black Panther Trial,” or “Oakland 7 Conspiracy Trial.”

I was born three years after the tragedy in Guyana, so I had no personal knowledge about the incident. The little knowledge I gained from skimming information about Garry’s relationship with the Temple led me to believe that it may be better, for the purposes of what I was doing, to leave this particular chapter of his life untouched. This decision, however, was never something I dwelled on or put much time into. I simply decided to move on and ignore the “cult” story.

After turning in my paper, my attention focused on completing the video project. I had scheduled more interviews for the summer and was convinced that a nicely composed film would be completed in time for the National Lawyers Guild convention of October 2003. During the initial editing of the film, I began to realize-as do most first time documentary filmmakers, I suppose-that there is nothing quick or easy involved in the process. It is a long and tedious undertaking that requires the help of many kind individuals who are willing to support your story by providing various pieces of the puzzle. This realization was mostly propelled, however, by the notion that what I was doing was, in fact, creating a “documentary”-not a collage of talking heads.

I realized this after seeing Sam Green’s The Weather Underground at a theater in Pasadena. My girlfriend at the time, who was not at all interested in the subject matter, was fascinated by the film. She asked: “Is yours going to be like this?” “No, I don’t have archival footage like that,” I responded. “Well, that’s why I think it was so interesting,” she said, “you need to include footage like that.” The next day, I began looking for footage of Garry and his clients.

As had been the case in the past, my search for new material yielded a ton of items dealing specifically with Jonestown. Again, I decided to ignore it all, and continued to do so until I began soliciting ideas from other filmmakers.

One said: “I like the story, but is this going to be an hour-long film on how wonderful Garry was?” I told her that, in an attempt to add a different angle to the story, I had spoken to the prosecutor Garry had faced in two prominent cases, but that he had refused to grant an interview for the film. “In addition to that,” I said, “there is this entirely different episode in Garry’s life that I have not looked into…” She was intrigued by the Jonestown story and encouraged me to delve into it.

“I think I’m going to include a chapter in the film that focuses on Jonestown,” I told Patricia Richartz over the phone some weeks later. “Could you tell me about it?” Over the course of several months, I had spent hours on the phone with Pat talking about Garry. This was the first time I had ever asked her for the full story about his involvement with the Temple. I had conducted a two-hour interview with her for the film some months before, but realized that a separate interview dealing solely with the Guyana tragedy was due. She told me that she would talk to others to see if they would also be interested in serving as interviewees.

At around the same time, I began viewing coverage of the 1978 mass suicides and killings. The tale these segments told was, as one NBC news correspondent put, “one of the most astonishing stories of our time, perhaps of any time.” While working on the newly-developing chapter, I would ask people to sit down and watch some of the footage. Having assumed that they would be exposed to yet another set of protest images from the sixties or early seventies, they would walk away shocked, not knowing how to link what they had just seen with the rest of the film. Included in the footage was an interview with Garry conducted by NBC reporter Don Harris just days before the incident. In it, Garry praises the settlement: “I think it’s a beautiful place. I consider it paradise.” He moves on to tell a skeptical Harris that “if you go there you’ll find that [the reports of armed squads in Jonestown are] not true. I hope you can go there so that you can see for yourself.”

After seeing these reports, I attempted to reconcile the two starkly different images of Garry. On one hand, Garry-the one I was inspired bycame out of poverty; organized factory workers; emerged as an attorney who put up a bitter defense against the government’s witch hunts of suspected communists; and defended the students activists and community organizers of the sixties. On the other hand was this attorney who apparently had changed course, and, because of the absence of newly developing “political cases,” had gotten caught up with a “cult.” With the inclusion of the “other Garry,” I felt that the film had lost something-that indescribable something that attracted me to the project in the first place.

People generally say, and many more believe that documentaries are objective pieces of narrative that are intended to inform and educate. Under no circumstance could they imagine that the film may be “tainted” by the director’s personal philosophy. Having understood that personal convictions do in fact play a role in the way a film is structured, many filmmakers opt to shoot the film and deliver it to an “objective” editor who will “liberate” the film from any subjective restraints. With my documentary, I found it crucial to do the exact opposite. I entered the world of documentary filmmaking because I wanted to share Garry’s story with others. But now, the image I had of Garry had crumbled. I felt that I was producing a sensational film with an interesting twist-the type of thing you see in Hollywood.

Some time passed, and Pat told me that Stephan Jones expressed interest in lending his voice to the story. I scheduled interviews with both Pat and Stephan, and retuned to the San Francisco Bay Area for the shoots. I don’t know if I realized it during the time spent with both of them, or later on, while watching their interviews dozens of times-there was no “other Garry.” People across the country were attracted to Peoples Temple because they saw something that Garry had picked up on.

According to Pat, Garry took on the Temple as a client after attending one of its services, which he said was like “a revival meeting.” There, “people [performed] on the stage, and there would be speakers speaking about the need for life care…and singing and dancing, and a wonderful meal afterward, and just this great feeling of community, which Charles had felt as the lawyer for the Black Panther Party. They also had a church and the kinds of services they had were very similar to what he was experiencing at the Peoples Temple.” When Garry told Don Harris that he believed Jonestown was “paradise,” he truly meant it. There, he had seen a community that was seemingly free of racism, sexism and any other type of social vice that permeated the members’ native cities and towns in the U.S. He viewed Jonestown as the living, breathing version of the ideal community he advocated his entire life. Only when it went terribly wrong, as Stephan noted, did Garry fill up with “disillusionment.”

“I do believe that when Charles latched onto somebody and wanted to represent him, [it was] because he had his own vision about right and wrong and the ills of our society. And any icon that he could latch onto-anybody that he felt represented an answer or resistance to those ills-he wanted to represent them,” Stephan said.

The film is currently in its last stages of post-production. At this point, I feel the story is a continuous one in which Garry’s attempts to defend what he believes to be right is propounded throughout. I don’t know how audiences will react. I am, however, comfortable knowing that the story I set out to tell, will be told.

(Hrag Yedalian is a law student at UCLA who plans to pursue his interests in filmmaking. He invites comments and additional stories about Charles Garry, and can be reached at hragyed@gmail.com.)

Last modified on March 12th, 2014.
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