Jonestown As I Know It

Please know that these thoughts are coming from one of the those lousy film producers who call you all the time. Also know though that I am the one who defected.

There was a film called Paradise Lost which captures my imagination. It was one of two documentary films that were released in 2006. If you look at the end credits, you’ll see that the “original concept” is down to two French people. Those same two people are the people that I worked for, back when I lived in Paris. You can bet that, if someone is interviewed in the film, I found that person. Never mind when or how. It was I who traced them and first spoke to them.

I say two films. The “other film” is far, far superior to the one I’m discussing. Whatever you don’t find in Paradise Lost, just look for it in the documentary Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple. You’ll probably find it there.

There were things that appeared in Paradise Lost, and there were things that that didn’t appear, and these are some of the reasons why I write this article.

Firstly, understand that I was the researcher when the film was being made in Paris, and not when it was being made in Canada. The project was finished in Toronto.

I have a horrible experience when I watch Paradise Lost. There are the simple things, such as how all my advice was lost. There are far more ways in which a film could have traveled in the right direction, instead of the wrong.

The film has several positive qualities. It has names attached to Tim Reiterman, Vernon Gosney, Sherwin Harris, and Stephan Jones. If it were not for these four people, the film would not exist. I was in touch, endlessly on the phone with Gosney and Reiterman, and slightly by email with Jones, but never with Harris as I researched the film. Here, let me make a statement: I knew that Sherwin Harris was out there, and I knew where to find him, but I was told to avoid him. “He wasn’t in Jonestown,” I was told. It wasn’t good enough that I replied, “It’s not that simple.” And it gets worse from there.

I could have called Jim Jones Jr., any day of the week, but my bosses preferred Stephan Jones for two reasons: he was the biological son, and we had already met him. We had long tapes with Stephan from the earlier film Killer Cults, making the most tragic testimony imaginable. I was reassured, over and over again, that Stephan was the big ticket. But in hindsight, it’s an asinine spectacle.

The most horrible thing for me is that this could have been a wonderful film, but my boss just didn’t get it. She kept telling me that we only had to focus on the events at Jonestown. This was almost idiotic, but she had the money. All of Leo Ryan’s adventures in Georgetown, all the Temple members’ memories from that city – it didn’t matter. Everything was about the death scene.

Please know that the film was given over to the Canadian company after it was understood to be a basket case in Paris. The final film has its qualities: four key persons testify, and the acting is pretty good in the re-enactment scenes. I was expecting the worst for re-enactments. A previous film, for which I did all the research and arranged the interviews, was made completely stupid by way of the re-enactments. As it happens now for Jonestown, the acting is well done.

It is hard to miss, after becoming a Jonestown nerd, that all the re-enactment scenes in Paradise Lost had actors portraying factual persons who were not identified. In one scene, the lawyer Charles Garry is accompanied by an actor who fits the description of Mark Lane, the other lawyer. In the scene where Larry Layton shoots people in the smaller plane, the actors in the background reflect Dale and Tracy Parks, but they reflect reality without identity. Another obvious example was that of Joe Wilson, portrayed by an actor but never identified.

The Parks family is not represented in Paradise Lost, nor is the Katsaris family, nor the Wilson family, nor the Evans family, nor the Bogue family. These are gigantic parts of the story. They were all defectors of Jonestown, and not even the only ones. Some day, perhaps, we will learn their story.

(Robert Helms now lives in Philadelphia. He can be reached at