A Filmmaker’s Odyssey into Jim Jones’ Heart of Darkness

Four years ago my producing partners and I began talks on a feature film project about Peoples Temple. I told them I would not write Page 1 until I had invested more legitimate time into getting to know the people and their stories. I wanted to demonstrate why they should be told before considering how. I knew little of that at the time, of course, but I knew I didn’t want to begin writing until I could find in myself why I could have joined the Temple had I been around at the time, and moreover, why I may have stayed.

One of the reasons I believe cinema to be the most important medium is how it tests our capacity for empathy. By embedding oneself in the vicarious adventures of characters both fictitious and real, sharing their most private, vulnerable and darkest moments, the viewer is burdened with the fullest weight of his or her own capacity for empathy. If I sought to help tell these stories, I knew I couldn’t write them until I could begin to feel that burden myself.

Amid three years of daily research via memoirs, government documents, conversations with survivors and relatives of the deceased, audiotapes, transcripts, and the myriad resources of the Jonestown Institute, my vision and purpose materialized and my mission statement was published in the November 2014 edition of the jonestown report. It remains my most authentic defense of the project.

I spent another year assimilating all the information and allowing my vision to take form organically, such that it became more vivid with each passing week. Once I had whittled down the stories that kept speaking to me the most, I embarked on interweaving them and translating that vision to the page, allowing it to take shape in the form of an ensemble piece.

Writing the first draft of the script was more a process of learning than telling. While my knowledge and understanding of the persons I’ve sought to depict is implacably handicapped by my never having known many of them, as their itineraries intersected, collided, and forked over three acts, I grew to understand them more as well as the context in which they lived. Having grown up in the Bay Area, I felt I had a head start on being able to mentally place of them in situ. And as I proceeded to trace and document their movements throughout that milieu, my education into my place of birth and youth expanded and deepened such that the Bay Area itself became a central character; a character I know now more intimately than before.

Once I had completed a draft, and ironed it out several times over, Fielding McGehee and Rebecca Moore, the managers of this site, were generous enough to review it and provide notes. Their expertise, insight and encouragement have been invaluable. It remains a living document, and will continue to breathe and grow as my producing partners scout its future. My Jonestown education is an ongoing process that will continue well after any film is wrapped, and I defy my curiosity to ever be fully satiated.

One survivor told me that, while he was resolutely resistant to Jim Jones well before and up to November 18, 1978, and while he was not physically in Jonestown that night, he believes that had he been in the pavilion, he would have taken the drink. When I asked why, he explained that the thickness of the peer pressure in the air that night would have been too intoxicating to defy.

That conversation has not left me since; it was the moment it all clicked. I’ve found myself locating that inescapable universality of human nature in so many scenarios, on so many scales. It’s in sports arenas, in political arenas, in any gathering of three or more. It’s not something that can be explained with words. But it’s something that all have lived. My hope, should I have the honor of helping to tell any of these stories, is that whoever is listening can find some part of themselves there that night, with those people. As long as that’s possible, these stories must be told.

(Christian Hartsock’s previous story for the jonestown report is Jonestown for Gen-Y: Reconstructing the Narrative. He can be reached at christianleehartsock@gmail.com.)