Making a Jonestown Documentary

(Disclaimer: The article that follows is only a reflection of my personal experiences and is not in any way a representation of the views or opinions of Sundance Channel, Jeff Guinn, this website, or any other entity.)

In the beginning of this year, I was hired to work on a Sundance Channel documentary series based on Jeff Guinn’s book The Road to Jonestown. One of the first things I became aware of when I started working on this project was that we were one of many, many films on the topic. I can think of three other television specials or films that came out just this year on the topic, and I’m sure there will be more.

This led me to realize that media people like myself have been bothering the Peoples Temple community for a very, very long time. All sorts of different films, television specials, books, podcasts, and news reports have resulted from this interest. Hours and hours of on-air time has been dedicated to trying to understand and explain the story of Peoples Temple (with mixed success).

I don’t mean to speak for how other productions have worked, or whether the way we did things was the right or wrong way. I just hope to share an honest account of how one of these documentaries about your community got made.

Our process started with Jeff Guinn’s book. The good news was that Jeff had already done most of the hard work for us. All we had to do was to figure out how to fit even some of his work into a four-hour program. We initially joked that we’d need at least ten hours to do the story justice, but now I think the full story might need even more than that.

Of course, we also needed to do outside research in the form of a good deal of reading, listening to audio tapes, and watching the many hours of archival video that exists from Peoples Temple and from Ryan’s media expedition to Guyana. This helped us figure out what parts of the story we could reasonably tell; as fascinating as Jim Jones’ time in Brazil during the early 1960s was, for example, we just didn’t have much media to show alongside it. One of the biggest limitations of documentary filmmaking is that it’s visual, so you’re limited to what’s available in archival material (and perhaps your recreation footage).

So with too much information, too much of a story and only a slightly smaller collection of archival materials, we had to decide how to best use the four hours. This meant deciding how to do our interviews: how many people could we reasonable talk to, how many days could we afford to rent a camera and pay a cameraman, etc. These led to our toughest decisions. If we can only talk to so many people, who should they be? There was no single answer to this question, and ended upon depending as much as who would agree to go on camera as anything else.

It was in the process of interviewing our subjects that the story of Jonestown truly came to life for me. This is because Jonestown is such a difficult subject matter to fully understand. It’s easy to feel that the more I look for answers, the more questions I have. The only way to really answer those questions is to ask the people who’ve been wrestling with them for decades. Any understanding I’ve gained on the topic is due in part to the patience and generosity of the community of former Peoples Temple members with whom we spoke. It is those interviews with people who witnessed the events, and saw the group at its highest and lowest points, that began to bring clarity to me and to the production.

On the other hand, reckoning with the archival materials that I had access to caused me only trouble and confusion. There’s a huge collection of Peoples Temple documents collected by the FBI from the Jonestown site after the deaths. These documents show the daily life and inner workings of the Temple, but they also reveal a darker story, such as the fact that cyanide was purchased and imported into Jonestown long before Congressman Ryan’s trip was even planned.

As it had with the documents, the FBI retrieved hundreds of cassette tapes containing countless hours of audio revealing moments of anxiety, fear, pain, and chaos. But the tapes also include light moments of laughter in Jonestown; soaring, passionate speeches by Jim Jones; and music performed by the community’s band, the Jonestown Express. These join the more upbeat parts of archival video footage and still photographs to paint a completely different picture. Happy children, proud adults, cooperative working, homes for black seniors with nowhere else to go, these are all part of a community of socialists singing together in a dream of a better future. In one striking clip, “Pop” and Luvenia Jackson sit and talk on the front porch of their Jonestown cottage about how they had been lost, but now they’ve found paradise.

After interviewing many survivors and listening to interviews with many more, we came as close as we could to the truth. Which is, that there isn’t really one truth. Both bodies of evidence can be true at the same time, and the stories of the people we listened to affirmed that.

(Thaddeus Bouska can be reached at