Taking the Story in a New Direction

by David B. Berget

08-04h-bergetAs a filmmaker, I have always been curious and interested in stories and tales that derive from our history. Not only can a historic event be a great story, but it has the capability to teach us something new as well. Jonestown is such an event.

Through interviewing witnesses, reading articles and studying source material, I can find the angle and tell the story through my own eyes. Where are the most interesting characters and POV? What are the values and themes? Where can I find the most conflict and drama? The story may have been told before, but – as any good storyteller knows – it’s not where you take things from, it’s where you take them to. Our story aims not only to show that the people of Jonestown were loving and innocent people misled by poisoned words, but to draw parallels to our society today.

“What occurred in Jonestown wasn’t exclusive to the people who were there. It could have happened to anyone.” Given the promise of a better life and isolated with propaganda, this statement is very much true, and makes me wonder how such beautiful people could have been caught up in the ideas of Jim Jones. I don’t remember where I read the quote, but it stuck with me. And it created a tornado of questions and thoughts in my head.

The main character of our story, a female reporter with a news crew, travels to Jonestown to create a news segment. Cynical and determined, she is looking for the next big headline that will make her career and has already decided the angle of her story. As the next dramatic 48 hours plays out, she realizes that things aren’t that black and white. Standing face to face with Jim Jones himself and the tragic deaths around her, she is struck with one question:

Is she so different from Jim Jones?

I am very conscious about media and its role in our everyday life. Are we getting news that informs and educate us, or is it merely entertainment and ratings? Are we seeing objective, nuanced information, or are we seeing political and favored news reports? These questions will be reflected in our main character as she faces emotional choices. She experiences death and terror, but gains a sense of humanity and perspective within herself.

We all need to find a meaning in life. Is it the word of God, the name of science or a job that gets us up in the morning? Whatever it is, we need it.

With this film, I want to show that these people lived for something beautiful, pure and noble. But…

How can a group of nine hundred human beings all make the same fatal choice? Their leader, Jim Jones, had such a psychological and terrifying hold on his members. He gave them what they always wanted and needed: something to believe in.

When working with the actors in this film, my biggest challenge is authenticity. Not only do I want to draw out realistic and emotional performances, but I also wish to stay true to the historic event and honor the experience of the many that so tragically walked into death’s arms.

What makes this project really exciting for me especially is the amount of material which is available on this website, as well as additional resources of the Jonestown Institute. I have already obtained stock footage and access to recordings, articles, photos that has given me valuable first hand insight into what the community was really like. This enhances my ability to build a solid universe and performances. I also encourage, and hope, that if you as a reader have any valuable insight and comments, you will contact me, no matter what your perspective may be. I am open to hear what you have to say.

I am driven to cast new light on this dark spot in our history. There is more to this story and more to explore. I intend to push my audience to think and ask questions.

As of now, the script is only in its infancy. With your support and encouragement, I can take this story to where it needs to go.

(David B. Berget is a directing fellow at the American Film Institute. Rated the best film school in the world, its teachers include working professionals and mentors. To earn an MFA degree, students must complete a thesis film, a project they spend their second year developing and perfecting. David Berget can be reached at send@davidberget.com.)

Originally posted on July 28th, 2013.

Last modified on November 14th, 2013.
Skip to main content