As a child I would hear bits and pieces of how my father survived this thing called “Jonestown.” At the time I had no real understanding of what this actually meant, but it intrigued me to hear that my Dad “survived” something. I have only known him to be a pilot, always inextricably linked to his career. The name Capt. Rodwell Astill Paul has always loomed large in my life. To this day, there are many people (mostly Guyanese) who still refer to me as “Captain Paul’s son.’’
Dad was a Guyana Airways pilot for most of that career before his retirement. My trips with him into the interior provided the perfect opportunity to sit in the cockpit and hear stories about his life in aviation—the people, the places, the perils and the humor that accounted for the many entries in his logbook. Though we would have many chats like this over the years, one topic he never mentioned was the one of his connection to the Jonestown story.
About 10 years ago, I asked him, for the first time, to describe that connection. I was old enough to have my own knowledge of the general happenings and so had a basis for the conversation. While it wouldn’t be the full conversation that we would have a few years later, I was blown away. It was at this point that I began to grasp his relevance to the story and his place in the story of that fateful day. It was at this point that I began to develop the desire to share that story with the world.
What began as a quest to uncover the truth of my father’s story has evolved into a documentary film tentatively titled Surviving Jonestown, whose road to completion continues to teach me about family, faith, community and the humanity that unites us all.
One of my primary focuses in making this film is to correct some of the inaccuracies in some prior accounts of this story, while bringing the story to a generation which is largely unaware of Jonestown and its place in history. To many of my peers, this film will be an introduction to the world of Peoples Temple and the events of Jonestown; to the generation that preceded me, it will serve as a reminder of the dream deferred in a remote jungle.
November 18, 1978 began like many others before it. My father’s flight schedule took him to the airstrip at Port Kaituma where he was scheduled to pick up passengers for last flight of the day, into the nation’s capital, Georgetown. As he attempted to get the plane boarded, things would change, and change quickly.
I asked my Dad why he had never told me his entire story before. His response helped shape my approach to this work. Initially required to remain silent in the aftermath of November 18, my father would eventually become jaded by the exposés that were littered with inaccuracies. These ranged from less egregious grievances, in his opinion, like depictions of vegetation that isn’t actually found in Guyana, to larger gaffes like the positioning of people on the runway and the type/model of plane they were flying that day. He also made the decision that he didn’t want to be a part of cashing in on the hysteria or perpetuating untruths. He was content with the fact of knowing that he was “there that day and knows what really happened.” I am thankful that he has entrusted me with his truth. My aim is to tell the story—his story—correctly and honestly.
As I began my research, it struck me that the story of Jonestown has always been told as happening to Guyana and in Guyana, yet it was surprisingly devoid of the voice of Guyana. On a certain level, I understand it. After all, the group in Jonestown was largely American. Leo Ryan, the American congressman who lost his life on the Port Kaituma tarmac, was a political figure of some prominence at the time. Jonestown became the headline, and Port Kaituma was relegated to the footnotes of scholarly papers and manuscripts.
I began to think of what the story would look like if a light could be shone upon the Guyanese perspective. Would it change anything at all? I began to form the types of questions, the answers to which would shape my vision for the film. Why Guyana? How was Peoples Temple able to exist in Guyana for all that time? Were there Guyanese in Jonestown? How far did the reach/influence of Peoples Temple extend in Guyana? Why did things unravel the way they did in that particular place, on that particular day? What was the Guyanese response to the tragedy? How did the American and Guyanese governments respond? How were the lives of the Americans living in Guyana changed? How did the surviving members of Jonestown feel about their time in Guyana, the people of Guyana and what they left behind in Guyana? Have they thought about going back?
I think what separates my film from any other before it, is that I entered the process of making the film without any preconceived notion of what the conclusion should be. I have relished the opportunity to learn the truth as I hear it from those who have lived it. Besides my Dad, I want to give honest voice to the other survivors of November 18, 1978 and at the same time honor the legacy of the voices lost on that day. In my pursuit of this, I have been fortunate enough to speak with people who survived the tragedy and who have put their trust in me to do right by their experiences. I have allowed their insight to help guide the path of this film.
What one comes to realize is, as one former Temple member explained to me, “nobody joins a cult.” These words have resonated with me because of the depth and complexity of their truth. People don’t join what is established and advertised as a cult. People join movements and causes with which they find a common connection. They join communities whose values and goals align with their own and give them a sense of purpose. To lose sight of this is to do an injustice to the lives lost in Guyana on November 18, 1978, including those deaths my father witnessed. Understanding this has been a great starting point for me. The interviews that I am collecting through the lens of a Canon c300 will be the true journey. I continue to be excited and inspired by where it will lead.
(Rotimi Paul is a graduate of Syracuse University and The William Esper Studio conservatory. He is an actor, writer and producer who currently resides in New York City. He is the Founder/Creative Director of Esselyn Angelina Productions. Surviving Jonestown marks his directorial debut. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)