Jonestown: Today and Yesterday

When I first started researching Jim Jones and Jonestown, I had no idea how much it would change me. Before I started creating my documentary, I knew something about it, although it turned out to be very little. However, it just seemed so distant to me. I watched the PBS documentary, read many of the articles, and saw the pictures taken both before and after the massacre. One thing that I remember most was the interview in the PBS documentary with Hue Fortson who had left Jonestown just a few weeks before the deaths, but whose son and wife died during the massacre. You could really see how that affected him, and that was when it really began to affect me, as well.

Looking at the Jonestown timeline, you could really see when things began to go downwards, when the lives of all those involved were no longer their own. Even all these years later, I found myself feeling very angry and sad for all those innocent lives lost, but I was also fascinated with the charisma and manipulative tactics that Jim Jones used.

When I first showed my video to my school, I didn’t expect to have much of an audience. However, I ended up having more than 60 fellow classmates come to watch the documentary. Almost every adult I talked to knew and remembered the events, but only a handful of my classmates did. I found that many of the adults were concerned with my choice of topic, and wanted me to change it. Still, I felt strongly that this was a story that needs to be told. As I talked with my classmates about it afterwards, I realized that only a few of them actually knew about the massacre, or even just heard of it before they walked into the room. Being aware of how few students actually knew of this only reinforced my previous conviction: it is important that these stories be told, to remind people of the dangers of putting the wrong person in power.

Learning about the story of all the families in Peoples Temple and hearing of what the survivors said about the days leading up to the massacre really affected me as a person. On some days, during the production of my documentary, I would just have to leave the room for a little bit. When I showed the documentary to my fellow students, I could tell that many of them had similar emotions to the ones I experienced when I was creating my piece. After creating White Knight, I can certainly say, without a doubt, that it made me look at things in a new way.

(Rose Dunton created her documentary video for her National History Day project. She attends the Idaho Virtual Academy and lives in Eastern Idaho.)