Together with philanthropist Richard Taylor, I recently completed an independent documentary film about the Guianas. The Wild Coast: An Exploration of the Guianas was published on my non-profit website earlier this year and is available for viewing there. The Jonestown Institute was gracious to allow my use of several of its previously-unseen photographs in the film.
I am a lawyer by trade, but creating run-and-gun travel-oriented documentary films is my avocation. I had always wanted to travel to the Guianas because of their unusualness. Other than Brazil, the Guianas are the only non-Spanish speaking countries in South America, and there are few tourists. Indeed, most Americans think the Guianas are in Africa.
The film’s thrust is to show the most significant places in all three of the Guianas, both geographically and historically. The first place we chose to film was Jonestown, Guyana. When we arrived, I located Mr. Fitz Duke, an Amerindian who was a witness to the Port Kaituma airstrip shooting that precipitated the Jonestown tragedy. I interviewed him about his recollections while standing in the middle of the now-paved airstrip. He told us of Patricia Parks, a Peoples Temple member who had left Jonestown with Congressman Leo Ryan on November 18, 1978, and who, like Ryan, was shot to death on the airstrip. Fitz witnessed this woman’s death – her head was nearly blown off by Temple gunmen who fired from a vehicle which had pulled up on the airstrip – and saw her brains spattered on the clothes of her daughter standing beside her. The girl fled into the woods nearby, where, after several days of crippling fear, she was found by the locals and saved. In the film, I flew an aerial drone with a camera to show the deep jungle still surrounding the airstrip. I could feel that little girl’s presence there.
Fitz later drove us out to the eerie site of Jonestown. Fitz was never a Temple member nor did he live at Jonestown, but he worked odd jobs for the Temple and met Jim Jones and many other Temple members in the 1970s. The site was difficult to get to, as it is now completely overgrown with green jungle bush. Some locals helped us hack our way in with machetes.
As we arrived, I began to remember the images of the newscasts, showing the aftermath of the mass suicide in 1978. I was only nine years old at the time, and could not then comprehend how so many could kill themselves. I have few childhood memories but this is one of them. The overused phrase, “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid” – i.e., never follow any religious fanatic blindly – became a permanent part of my vocabulary.
However, as I researched Jonestown for the film, it became apparent that in fact, what I thought I remembered about it was not entirely accurate. Religion no longer played a role in Jonestown, at least for Jim Jones. Jones had been a Christian preacher, and while many or most of his devotees were still Christian, Jim Jones himself morphed into an anti-Christian Marxist-socialist with a fixation on death. One only need listen to the horrifying FBI Death Tape Q 042 – recorded by Jones on the fateful day – to hear Jones describe himself and Jonestown in such a way. It became apparent to me, that his power over others was based, not on his newer views of nihilistic Marxist-socialism, but the ability to frame them with traditional biblical concepts of apostolic fervor that many of the Temple members still adhered to. He was able to retain so much power over so many due to his knowledge and usage of the Christian Bible mixed with ideas of Marxist-socialism.
I was also surprised to learn that it was not a mass suicide as I had always thought. Yes, many members did drink the poison voluntarily, but many, if not most, were in fact murdered, especially the 300 innocent children who still had their self-preservation instinct intact. An unknown number of adults were also murdered; those who refused to drink were injected with the drug by Jonestown’s security guards.
As part of the film, I also attended the 35th anniversary memorial at the Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland, California. The Guyana government refused to allow the burial of the Jonestown dead on site, so the US military airlifted the bodies to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. About half of the bodies – those unidentified and unclaimed after the tragedy – were transported across the country and buried at Evergreen in May 1979. I talked to several survivors during the event and made some new friends. One man I spoke to, whose name I will not mention, told me in a somber tone that Jim Jones was his father. I initially thought this was one of Jones’ biological sons, but I came to learn later he meant “father” spiritually.
I did not describe this conversation in the film. I can understand how someone could honor Jim Jones with the moniker spiritual father, but I cannot accept it. We use this term for great men like Gandhi, Rev. Martin Luther King or John Paul II, men of peace who helped all of mankind, never seeking anyone’s pain or destruction. Jones was a man who fed himself a daily cocktail of illicit mind-altering drugs, who demanded sex with anyone he wanted, who rejected his faith for Karl Marx, and who convinced so many to self-immolate and murder for the stupidest of reasons: to show the world the Jonestown revolution! But what was his revolution? A rejection of capitalism, Christianity, respect for the integral dignity of men and women? Has history granted him a role in the development of goodness and peace in the world? I would say no. The Temple members’ lives were taken and destroyed in vain.
(David Whalen’s film can also be seen at this link.)