PBS Documentarian Begins Work on Peoples Temple Story

I am a documentary filmmaker. Earlier this year I set out on behalf of Stanley Nelson and Marcia Smith, an acclaimed husband and wife team of filmmakers, to begin research and development for a documentary about “Jim Jones and Peoples Temple.” From the beginning it has been an undertaking that I’ve approached with great interest and great anxiety. I will explain the exact nature of my interest momentarily. As for the source of my anxiety, it comes from being well aware that in asking former Temple members to tell me their stories, I am asking people to revisit a reservoir of immense loss and sorrow that they have spent years trying to come to terms with. In recognition of that, I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to the many people connected to this story who have welcomed me into their homes or spent hours on the telephone with me after a busy day of dealing with work or the demands of family life. Hearing your stories has been humbling, inspiring, sobering, and deeply moving. Above all it has been a privilege and often a revelation.

I have been doing this work in one capacity or another for about seventeen years with such efforts as Eyes On the Prize II: America’s Civil Rights Years, Africans in America: America’s Journey Through Slavery, and Citizen King. When I was starting out, I was under the impression that this work was something I had chosen. However, in the last six years there have been several instances in which it has become clearer and clearer to me that I’ve had it all backwards – rather than my choosing this work, this work seems to be choosing me.

At no moment has this seemed truer than when Stanley Nelson called to ask if I wanted to work with him on a film about Peoples Temple for PBS’ American Experience Series. Stanley and I have always been friendly but not close. Although we’ve known each other for 15 years, we have never worked together, so when he called me with this project I was pretty surprised. Part of my surprise was the call itself, but mostly I was surprised because he was asking me to work on a film that intersects with the (once secret) history of my family. My mother’s sister, her husband, and my three cousins were all in the Temple between 1971 and 1977. I have childhood memories of attending services in Ukiah during a visit to California – the choir and the crunch of that gravel road outside the church. I remember Pinkie, my cousins’ grandmother, who left the Temple when the other members of my family did. I remember the shock, horror, and disbelief of November 18, 1978, as Aunt Janet, Uncle David, my parents, and we kids stared at the TV in our den. How strange then, all these years later, to receive an offer to collect the stories of former Temple members and Jonestown survivors.

ARTERBERRY, Linda Theresa
Photo Courtesy of California
Historical Society, MSP 3800

Romare Bearden, the great painter and collage artist, used to say, “What you’re looking for ain’t worth a damn. It’s what you find that matters.” I knew from the outset that part of my challenge on this particular project would be to forget what I thought I knew and be open to what presented itself. Thankfully, one of the first things I did in my research was to arrange a trip to the California Historical Society in San Francisco. When I got there, archivist Denice Stephenson had stacked box after box of Temple documents on a table in the back of the room. She had taken the liberty of opening a box of faded Polaroid photographs as the first thing for me to view. She spread maybe thirty of them out on the table. Before long we had pulled out many more. These were portraits like one might have taken for an ID card or a roster board, and in fact, they were labeled “Membership Photos.” There were hundreds of them. Each one was shot against a dull, flat backdrop. In every photograph the subject’s eyes met the lens straight on. What I saw taking shape in front of my eyes gave me chills. Together, they were a study in uniformity and repetition. However, if you looked at them one after another, each face was unmistakably an individual with his or her own voice, his or her own story to tell. In one or two of these Polaroids, the subject is holding up a small sign that reads, “I believe in Jim Jones.”

At that moment, I began to realize just how much of what we want to tell is in the lives of the people who made up Peoples Temple – who they were, what they wanted, how they saw themselves, and what their intense and complicated relationships with Jim Jones and each other were.

We are trying to make a film that is very different from the representations of Peoples Temple that exist in the mainstream media. The more I learn, the more it is apparent that there is not one definitive truth in this story, but many concurrent truths. In some ways telling this story is akin to telling the story of a very large extended family: everyone’s point of view is different depending on where and when they entered the picture. One of our challenges is to make this multi-stranded history work within the confines of television in general (which is essentially linear in nature), American television in particular (which increasingly promotes simplicity and type-casting), and an American public that may have long ago made up its mind about Peoples Temple. We are not there yet, but the wonderful humanity and insights of our interviewees tells me that it is possible.

Every now and then, someone who has shared their stories will contact me to ask about our progress or why he or she hasn’t heard from me in a while. I would like to take this opportunity to apologize. The truth is that at times, this endeavor has left me overwhelmed. I have been essentially working alone and there is so much information to process – not to mention its emotional weight. At the end of many days I am drained. I can see that it will take time to make this into the film that its subjects and subject matter deserve.

In many ways, Stanley, Marcia, and I are still at the beginning. We welcome the input of anyone who is reading this that has any input to offer. Thank you.

(Noland Walker can be reached at nolandwalker@aol.com.)