California Eden is a 12-minute short film made by a group of film students from the University of Newport, Wales (or as it is now known after its recent merger, The University of South Wales). It sets out to tell the story of our fictional main character Andrew Foster and his experience of the final hours of Peoples Temple.
We started brainstorming ideas for the film assignment earlier this year. The task was to make a realist film; this meant that the style in which it was shot and the story it was going to tell had to fit into that genre. It was our director Alex Walker who first suggested Jim Jones and Peoples Temple as a field of interest. Not all of us, including me, had heard of Jonestown before, and so we started immersing ourselves in the subject matter. Among other things, we watched the documentary, Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, to gain a better insight into what had happened. This is also when we came across this website, which was immensely valuable to our research. Thanks to the transcripted and recorded speeches of Jim Jones, we were able to piece quotes and passages together to create the speech that Jones gives in our film.
Once we had gathered a substantial amount of research, we started to tackle what would be the plot. Now it become evident to us that there was no way for us to properly represent everything about the Temple and its life in Jonestown in the 12 minutes allotted to the film. We also knew that if we were to even attempt to tell a fraction of the events, we needed the proper intent to do so. In the end we decided to create a fictional main character – Andrew Foster, Jones’ right hand man – and follow the final hours of Jonestown from his viewpoint. We hoped the character could depict both why people would have followed Jones as well as our own views about this tragedy. Emotionally this was to be his story, his internal struggle as his loyalty to Jones is put into question.
Our next concern of pre-production and production was concentrated on turning fact into fiction. This included the script, production design, casting, etc. Casting the actor to portray Jones was one of our biggest challenges. This was due to the likeness we were seeking as well as our limited budget. We eventually cast Rebel Dean for the pat, and we were very happy with his performance.
The budget also proved to be a hindrance in acquiring the right props and location. After all, we were shooting a film in Wales but that was set in 1970’s South America. With the help of a crowd-funding campaign we were able to afford our efforts. We ended up shooting the film in Cardiff, in a wooden church hall that came close to the look that we were seeking.
Once we entered post-production and started editing, we realized that we had problems acquiring stock footage. We wanted to make use of it at the beginning of the film to create a feel for the place and to set the scene. Most of the footage that we found was owned by NBC and the rights would have destroyed our budget. This is when I contacted this site and acquired a DVD of Jonestown footage that helped us out a lot.
In closing, I would like to add some personal thoughts. Going into this project, Eden‘s director Alex, cinematographer Matthew, editor Nina, and I had known varying things about Peoples Temple and the events surrounding the tragedy. But whatever we thought we knew, working on this project has certainly given each of us a new point of view. Starting with factual research, to interviews, first hand accounts and then seeing actually stock footage made it feel more real step by step. I think there is often the danger that history can feel very abstract, and the superficial glances most of us give such events make it feel disconnected and sometimes even unreal. There is a quote by George Santayana: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” I think that the remembering of history is also a visceral understanding that it really happened, that it’s not just dates and numbers on paper but that it was real people, with loved ones and relatives. It’s real life, very real life. I think that this project gave all of us a greater appreciation of what that means and maybe what it would have meant to be a person who experienced those final hours in Jonestown.
(California Eden may been seen in its entirety through a Vimeo link.)