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Peoples Temple

Jim Jones led his followers from the Fillmore to their death in Jonestown

Rev. Jim Jones at the Peoples Temple in the Fillmore

Jim Jones rose to power, almost quietly and humbly at first, during the 1960s, a time of unparalleled social unrest and personal questing. For some, Jones and the Peoples Temple offered the combination of religious and social consciousness they sought. Jones preached about equality and his congregation offered food and comfort to the sick, the homeless and the jobless.

In 1971, the Peoples Temple bought a building at Geary and Steiner — where the post office stands today — and moved its headquarters to the neighborhood.

As his ministry grew, Jones’s charisma and ability to attract followers and deliver votes was not lost on local politicians, who sought his support and appointed him to a seat on the San Francisco Housing Authority. But upon closer examination, something was amiss in the seeming utopia Jones had created. Reporters began to inquire, and just as a critical article was about to be published, Jones uprooted his congregation from the Fillmore and moved them to a remote outpost in the jungle of Guyana.

Shortly after the move in the summer of 1977, a different truth about the group began to emerge. Defectors and family members reported physical, sexual and drug abuse, faked healings and financial corruption.

Representative Leo Ryan of San Mateo responded to family pleas for help. He flew to Jonestown and, after initially being rebuffed, was welcomed at an evening of music and celebration. But during the festivities, some residents passed notes to Ryan’s party saying they were being held in Jonestown against their will and wanted to leave. As Ryan, his party and four Jonestown defectors waited at an airstrip to leave, they were shot by temple gunmen.

Later that day — November 18, 1978 — 918 members of the Peoples Temple, many of them from the Fillmore, died after Jones commanded them to drink grape Flavor Aid laced with cyanide. Jones was found with a fatal gunshot to his head. Among the victims were 276 children, many of whom had been injected with the poison by their parents.

JONESTOWN: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple

“For me, like many other Americans, the 1978 mass murder-suicide in Jonestown, Guyana, occupies a place of horror mixed with fascination,” says Stanley Nelson, director of the documentary “Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple,” which aired nationwide on public television in April 2007. Following are excerpts from a conversation with the director.

The Jonestown tragedy is a distant memory for most. What made you want to tell this story?

It’s true that many have forgotten about Jonestown, and still others know little about it and were not even born when the massacre occurred. But it was such an important historical, albeit tragic, moment that I felt the need to capture it while people with a firsthand perspective could still share their memories. While a distant memory, there were aspects of this story that were never explored.

I made this film, in part, because the most pivotal and intriguing questions pertaining to the mass murder-suicide in Jonestown remained unanswered. I wanted to answer those questions for myself and for people around the world who still view the incidents that occurred in 1978 with both horror and fascination.

What are some of those questions?

First, and foremost, who was Jim Jones to command such loyalty that, in the name of struggle and religion, he could command parents to murder their own children? How could a diverse group of 900 people be convinced to commit suicide? What drew so many people across racial and class lines to Peoples Temple?

Weren’t Jones’s followers either brainwashed or just plain crazy?

Marginalizing and dismissing members of Peoples Temple is one of the greatest disservices history has perpetuated in retelling the story of Jonestown. Instead of going the traditional, comfortable route, we took a different approach. We dug beneath the headlines, popular conceptions and conspiracy theories.

What we uncovered was that on the surface Jim Jones and his multi-racial congregation espoused the values of a model society. Jones was a charismatic and forceful leader who offered the perfect balance of spiritual fulfillment and political commitment. His followers were searching. They were vulnerable. And like so many people in our society, they were searching for a place in which they could feel connected and included.

What do you say to critics who suggest you are putting a positive spin on this terrible incident and giving the cult leader a sympathetic treatment?

I would encourage them to see the film for themselves and make up their own minds. We are documentarians who approach this issue with reverence and a desire to provide the public with the truth. Our role was not to editorialize. It was to uncover the facts and to present them — good, bad and indifferent. My role is to provide the facts and let history be the ultimate judge.

I can tell you that during the filming, we interviewed some of Jones’s childhood acquaintances. They told disturbing stories about Jones killing small animals so that he could arrange funerals for them. But as the research and the story unfolded we found that, in its entirety, Jones’s life is a paradox of extremes. On one hand, Jones didn’t just preach about integration and equality, he adopted an African American child and two Asian children. The adoptions, combined with his integrated church, generated so many death threats that Jones was forced to leave Indiana. In California, he built an organization that provided food, clothing and shelter to his congregation and his community.

Conversely, as events progressed, family members shared stories of sleep deprivation, sexual and physical abuse, and Jones’s rampant use of drugs and alcohol. The residents of Jonestown were subjected to Jones’s tape-recorded sermons delivered through loud speakers 24 hours a day, and as Jones’s mental health seemed to deteriorate, so did the coherency of the broadcasts.

On many levels, survivors will tell you that Jones delivered on his promise to build an ideal community, but whatever good he may have accomplished was undone by the gruesome, horrific way the entire story ended.

What did you do in your approach to making this film that was new or different from earlier treatments on the subject?

We treated the family members and survivors of Jonestown with respect and approached them with completely open minds. In return, they entrusted our team with stories that have never been told publicly. We were given access to audio tapes that have never been heard. For example, in the movie, we play a recording of Jones encouraging his followers to drink the poisoned punch.
Previously, there were just over 900 people who heard that speech. Of those, 900 are dead, and we interviewed two of the five who managed to escape alive.

We uncovered original film footage shot by Temple members of Jim Jones and the congregation. There are scores of never before seen photographs recently declassified from the CIA’s investigations into Peoples Temple and Jonestown.

Again, we sought out former Peoples Temple members and surviving relatives; many of them agreed for the first time to tell the dramatic story of Jonestown in their own words.

What aspects of this story were new or moving to you personally?

I was surprised and profoundly moved by stories of idealism and camaraderie, of blind faith and staggering loss. And what emerged beyond the horror of the events I thought I knew so well was a surprisingly recognizable portrait of people who became inspired by a revolutionary vision for utopia — only to be betrayed by the man who promised to lead them there. Another remarkable fact that was lost on me all of these years was that Jim Jones commanded an almost 80 percent black congregation.

Many of your films have a specifically African American focus. Considering the makeup of Jones’s congregation, what would you say to people who describe Jonestown as a “black” film?

Every good storyteller begins with issues that are familiar to him. My own reality as an African American comes to the creative process and informs my perspective. The challenge is taking one’s own personal experiences and translating them in ways that have universal appeal. The issues raised in Jonestown and my other films are not race-specific. The powerless feeling of grief and isolation a mother experiences after her child is killed is not contained by the boundaries of race. The chicanery and deception of a leader who takes a flock astray defies a racial context. People of every race, on every continent, and at every stage in human history, know the destructive nature of power that is allowed to grow unchecked.

What messages do you hope viewers take away from this film?

For me, the story of Jonestown is about the thin lines between faith and zealotry, loyalty and coercion, charismatic leadership and demagoguery. It is the familiar story of people who lose themselves during times of uncertainty and are willing to follow anyone who they believe will offer them stability and security. As the sign found hanging above the pulpit in Jonestown, Guyana, aptly warned, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”