Cults fascinate me. It doesn’t matter if it is Aum Shinrikyo, Heaven’s Gate, Branch Davidians or Scientologists. I particularly am fascinated by the doomsday cults for some strange reason. Maybe it was some of the fire and brimstone of my Southern Baptist upbringing rubbing off on me? The mother of all cults in the U.S. has to be Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple. This is a riveting documentary that traces the history of Jones and Peoples Temple that ultimately led to the death of over 900 members in Jonestown, Guyana in an infamous mass suicide in 1978.
Jonestown starts out with Jones’ youth as an outsider in Indiana obsessed with religion, death and equality. In time he will combine all those elements but it took him over two decades to reach that point in Guyana. Jones was in the Pentacostal church early on and his sermons are very charismatic with lots of singing, dancing in the aisles and healings. His message of equality between the races attracted a lot of people who wanted to escape the binds of racism, included a huge number of African-Americans.
In the mid ‘60s the church moved to Ukiah, California and it is here that the church really blossomed as an agrarian, utopian collective. Bus trips across the country in the summer created growth and they also become more politically active in the Bay Area, which gave Jones a lot of clout. When they move to San Francisco in the early ‘70s the church becomes its largest, most powerful and rapidly develops a dark undercurrent thanks to Jones and his use of sex, God and control over the congregation. By the time the Peoples Temple uproots itself to settle in the jungles of Guyana they have fully embraced the brainwashed idea that Jones is their leader, their savior and that the government and the world is out to get them. It’s unbelievably captivating to me.
There are two main elements to the documentary that make this such a powerful look into the Peoples Temple: the open and honest interviews with survivors and the use of photographs, film and sound clips taken by Temple members.
The stories these people tell cover the entire gamut of their experiences —early joy and sense of “home” to horror as their loved ones die in their arms after taking the cyanide laced Kool-Aid. These people look the most painful and ghastly moment in their lives in the mirror and they do not blink or make excuses. Some of these people lost multiple loved ones on that day in 1978 and their directness makes what they say more believable and powerful.
On top of the stories and first hand accounts is an array of footage of images and sounds from the Peoples Temple. The sermons of Jones were interesting to listen to and watch. There is no doubt the man had a charisma in the pulpit and its easy to understand how he built up such a large, devoted church—although I’ll never grasp fully how they (or any cult member) would follow their leader to such dark places. The footage and sounds from the mass suicide is obviously the most chilling thing in the documentary. There are lots of great extras as well if you rent this on DVD.
Jonestown: Life and Death of the Peoples Temple is a gripping and captivating look at the path some people take on the way to giving up everything they own, including their children’s lives, their loved ones lives, their own lives—all because of one man led them on this path. As someone who is interested in the history and psychology of a cult, this is likely one of the best and most interesting docs I’ll watch all year.