Directed by: Stanley Nelson
Written by: Marcia Smith
On 18 November 1978, according to titles at the very beginning of Jonestown: Life and Death of People’s Temple, 909 members of Jim Jones’ American expatriate Christian cult—let’s call a spade a spade here—committed mass suicide on their compound in Guyana, named after their revered leader, by drinking cyanide-laced Kool-Aid. Others, though the minority, were shot, strangled and stabbed for refusing to do so, so perhaps more accurately, all things considered, we should say that the people of Jonestown were slaughtered. (If this is all news to you, read up on it.) Those figures also don’t take into account a visiting U.S. Congressman and his retinue of aides and journalists, some of whom were shot on a tarmac that same day while trying to leave. It’s an astounding tragedy, horrifying, sickening, and any other adjective Roget can toss out that still couldn’t describe the actual revolting monstrosity of it: parents poisoning their children, including many infants, spouses killing one another, grown-children administering the toxic concoction to their elderly parents. How to wrap one’s mind around such confounding behavior?
Well, certainly not by watching Stanley Nelson’s documentary, now presented as an episode of the American Experience series. The best—and worst—part of Nelson’s film is his access to raw footage, grainy 8mm film of Jones speechifying, of happy church-members working and celebrating in Jonestown, and finally of dozens of face-down bodies scattered throughout the tropical makeshift town—Auschwitz in Kodachrome and blue jeans.
Under the confines of televisable length, Nelson’s film—which comes in at under ninety minutes—just doesn’t delve deep enough into its subjects, though certainly the massacre at Jonestown is a topic worthy of penetrating examination. First of all, in Nelson’s film Jones goes from charismatic Christian socialist icon to paranoid, self-deified killer with little explanation, other than that he was a strange child, and had started using drugs. That’s really not good enough. Secondly, Jonestown, though only on its surface, is attractive in its spirit of interracial community, and I can perhaps begin to understand why people would want to live there under Jones as their master. But to then die for him? Nelson also cuts the story off at its climax, the genocidal bloodbath, without really getting into the aftermath or how anyone survived and escaped.
Few people did so, and that’s the fundamental flaw of Jonestown. Nelson, through no fault of his own, has only a handful of survivors to interview and they offer little elucidation of the event since their response was to fight and flee for their lives. That I can relate to, but what I have trouble coming to terms with is how nearly a thousand people would give their lives and the lives of their loved ones under one madman’s orders. Unfortunately, the dead can’t speak, and the documentary is thusly very unsatisfying. (One of the most moving parts of the film is an anonymous letter left by a People’s Temple member before he killed himself, urging the world to examine what’d transpired there.) Nelson lays out the facts, and complements them with some priceless footage, such as Jim Jones showing-off his provisions to reporters—including a trunk full of Kool-Aid—but there’s a lot more to the Jonestown saga that got left out. Nelson has said, according to the IMDb message boards, that he wanted to fashion a strictly factual film that wasn’t bogged down in speculation, but what happened in Jonestown is far too complex a story to reduce successfully to its bare bones; the mystery and confusion surrounding what happened is too intertwined with the known facts to be ignored—Nelson’s Sergeant Friday approach leaves me with no better understanding of how such a thing could have happened, nor how and why it did. Maybe it’s ultimately impossible to explain such a thing, but surely we could agree that the worst possible way to try would be a PBS-style documentary made up of emotional interviews without even an author, historian or psychologist for context? Fascinating but ultimately too frustrating, Nelson’s film serves well as a simple introduction to the Jonestown conundrum, but the definitive account, the one that will be truly enlightening, is yet to be told.