Jonestown - The Life & Death of Peoples Temple (2006)
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Jonestown. Decades after the fact, the very mention of the word evokes grim memories of Rev. Jim Jones, his Peoples Temple, and the horrific suicide of more than 900 followers who accompanied him to Guyana, Jones' self-styled South American Shangri-La. While November 18, 1978--when, following the shooting of California Rep. Leo Ryan (who had come to Jonestown to investigate various allegations about mistreatment of cult members), all those people drank cyanide-laced Kool-Aid--is the obvious focal point, producer-director Stanley Nelson's 90-minute documentary also devotes a good deal of time to Jones' personal history up to and including the founding of the Peoples Temple. Born in Lynn, Indiana, he was inspired by the power and authority of the preachers he witnessed, and was at it himself by his early twenties. His own church was fully integrated (he and his wife adopted two Asian Americans and one African American; the latter, named Jim Jones Jr., is among those interviewed for the film). Services were joyous occasions, more like Baptist revivals than the typical white Christian affair, and Jones' followers seemed genuinely devoted, buying into his snake-oil bit (including fake healings) and willingly forking over 20 percent or more of their incomes to him. But after Jones moved the Temple from sleepy Ukiah, California, to San Francisco, the madness began to set in, and just as an exposé of his more unsavory practices (sexual and otherwise) was about to be published, he hurriedly relocated the whole scene to Guyana. Although Jonestown was virtually a prison camp (the mere thought of leaving was blasphemous), they managed to convince Ryan that it was paradise--until the congressman started getting notes surreptitiously passed to him by members desperate to get out. Chaos quickly ensued, and the film's final moments, in which Jones can be heard exhorting his crazed flock to drink the Kool-Aid, are genuinely harrowing. There is ample footage of Jones himself, along with the recollections of Peoples Temple members (including those very few who survived Jonestown) and others. Deleted scenes and an interview with Nelson highlight the bonus material. --Sam Graham
Jonestown was the informal name for the Peoples Temple Agricultural Project, an intentional community in northwestern Guyana formed by the Peoples Temple, an American cult led by Jim Jones. It became internationally notorious when, on November 18, 1978, 918 people died in the settlement as well as in a nearby airstrip and in Georgetown, Guyana's capital. The name of the settlement became synonymous with the incidents at those locations.
A total of 909 Temple members died in Jonestown, all but two from apparent cyanide poisoning, in an event termed "revolutionary suicide" by Jones and some members on an audio tape of the event and in prior discussions. The poisonings in Jonestown followed the murder of five others by Temple members at a nearby Port Kaituma airstrip. The victims included Congressman Leo Ryan, the first and only Congressman assassinated in the line of duty in the history of the United States. Four other Temple members died in Georgetown at Jones' command.
To the extent the actions in Jonestown were viewed as a mass suicide, it is the largest such event in modern history and resulted in the largest single loss of American civilian life in a non-natural disaster until the events of September 11, 2001.