Stanley Nelson chronicles the Jonestown Massacre, 28 years to the day


                                                 The Interview: Stanley Nelson talks with Omar P.L. Moore

Saturday, November 18, 2006 --

Twenty-eight years ago on this day, on Sunday, November 18, 1978, some 913 people died in the largest mass suicide in history, in Guyana in a town called Jonestown.  A fire-and-brimstone preacher named Jim Jones somehow convinced his followers to drink Kool-Aid laced with cyanide.  By this stage Jones' paranoia was accompanied by mental illness.  Before his descent into insanity Jones had raped a number of his own parishioners, as well as molested the young children of some parishioners.

If anyone knows how to chronicle such painful events on film, it appears that very few can in quite the way Stanley Nelson can.  Nelson has taken on painful events in world history before, with his 2004 documentary "The Murder of Emmett Till", which spotlighted and re-examined the savagely graphic beating, torture and murder in 1955 of a teenage black male in Mississippi who had reportedly sassed a white woman.  (In fact, whether young Mr. Till did anything more than merely glance at the woman is still in question after more than 50 years.)  His impassioned film lays out the facts and disputes and invites the audience to examine the events, feel the pain and endure the agonies that the events of the times have left behind.  Due to Nelson's documentary on Till, the Mississippi District Attorney's office reopened the case after learning of facts that the film revealed.

As far as "Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple" is concerned, the legal case is closed.  The scars however, are horrifically alive in the hearts of the families of those who perished, and Nelson brings them alive from a period that many people have either wanted to forget, or have joked about ("you must be drinking the Kool-Aid!").  The 51-year-old director of "Jonestown" himself understandably found the process of telling this story very challenging at times.  "I think there were a couple of things about it that were really difficult," says Nelson.  "One was to gain the trust and confidence of the people who were part of Peoples Temple.  Now one of the things that we realized early on is that we wanted to make the film without narration.  We didn't want to have a lot of professors, or people who had studied Jones . . ."  This decision clearly seems to have paid off, as the audience has no filter from which to distance itself from the downward spiral into trauma, despair, and finally death.  "We wanted the story to be told by people who were on the inside, who were part of the event."  Nelson was not trying to convince people involved in the events of 1978 to become his friend and participate in the making of his documentary: "I would just talk to people and if they wanted to be interviewed and be a part of it, then they would.  If they said that . . . they didn't want to participate, then that would be fine too."  Nelson, who iin 2002 was awarded a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship "genius grant" (as it is termed), managed to get at least a dozen people directly involved in Peoples Temple, or relatives of those who died, on camera for his documentary. 

Cult and Horror: Jim Jones and right, the bodies in the distance, of many of his parishioners on November 18, 1978 -- 28 years ago today.
(Photos: California Historical Society; Associated Press/CNN)

"By the time we were rolling the cameras, these people really trusted us and they really saw that we were trying to tell this story in a different way than it had ever been told before .  And I think that they -- everybody involved in the film felt that the story had never really been told the way it should, [the common public assumption] that The Peoples Temple was looked at as a bunch of crazy people who followed this madman to their death, and 'weren't they all crazy?, you know, it was a tragedy but, you know, they were stupid, you know, for following.'  And I think they [the participants] saw this as their best chance, maybe in their lifetime to tell the story as they saw it."  Given the inevitable constraints of both time and money, Nelson let the principals of the story tell it in their way and as fully as they could.

When watching "Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple" (which opened earlier this month in California, and in late October in New York City and is expanding across North America right now and through into March 2007), it is hard not to feel anger as well as heartbreak.  The anger overwhelms the viewer, and for a variety of reasons, some precisely described by the director in the paragraph above.  Jim Jones engaged in complete mind control, depriving his parishioners, who had come to Jonestown to build a city that would serve as a utopia for all their optimism and visions for a world fueled by goodwill and innocence, a world a planet away from the harshness and coldness of what they felt the United States of America had become.  The parishioners of Peoples Temple varied in age, education and race, with a predominantly black membership, which Jones, a charismatic white man from Indiana, a state with its own deep histories of Ku Klux Klan and other manner of racial hatreds, was able to court almost effortlessly.

Anger was felt by Nelson as well.  "That's normal," he reassures the interviewer.

"I think that hopefully if the film is working, what happens is . . .you know, look we tell you -- first thing that comes on the screen is the graphic 'in November 1978 over 900 people died in Jonestown, and so you know where the film is headed, even if you've forgotten, even if you never knew.  But hopefully you get caught up in the story.  So for the first hour, you're just in this story -- but then in the last half-hour, once they get into Jonestown in Guyana, it starts to come back what's gonna happen to these people, and you just are like, pissed!  You just want this thing to stop and you hope that somehow it's not going to happen, and you know it does.  And so it made me very angry.  It was also a very emotional film to make -- for over a year dealing with a lot of sadness, a lot of sorrow, you know, kind of a collective dream that ended up in disaster.  It was an emotionally wrenching time for everybody who was involved in making the film."

Laura Kohl  Jonestown survivor Laura Johnston Kohl  (Snapshot from: CNN)

Of course, many of the families of the victims have seen the film.  "We rented a theater and had a screening for Peoples Temple members and then for some of our colleagues," said Nelson.  The filmmaker, who has been making documentaries for over 30 years (his wife Marcia Smith wrote the documentary) made every attempt to invite as many people directly connected with the events of November 1978 and in the years before that, as possible.  "I guess maybe about half of the people who were in the film came to that initial screening and it was just one of these things where the film ended and we said 'you know, we're gonna have some coffee and refreshments outside in the lobby we can talk out there.  And so the film ended, and we had .. I think this was probably our first real screening -- and it was this stunned silence and then, you know, everybody filed out of theater and I noticed that none of the Peoples Temple's members were out of the theater.  I looked back and they were all sitting there."  This scene in the theater gave Nelson huge trepidation as he was convinced that he had rubbed them the wrong way with his documentary.  "I thought 'oh God, what's gonna happen now?'  And one guy, Eugene, who's younger, one of the younger guys who was part of Peoples Temple -- he was still in the back and he grabbed my hand and he said, 'that was great, that was just incredible.'  So that made me feel a little bit better, I said, 'okay, maybe things were going to be alright.'  But they stayed in the theater for about 15 minutes afterwards just talking amongst themselves.  And they've just been incredibly supportive of the film."

Nelson isn't sure whether the family of the late Congressman Leo Ryan, the San Francisco politician killed in a shooting ambush on the airstrip in Guyana the day before the mass suicides has seen the film, and current San Francisco politician Jackie Speier, who was shot at least five times (two bullets remain embedded in her body) during that same gunfire attack by Jones's guards.  "I think that Jackie's seen it.  I hope she has."  Speier is on camera in the film reliving the harrowing events.  Ample video is shown of the shootout, and of the mass suicides' aftermath -- never-before-seen video footage in the case of the latter event -- as well as never before heard audio of Jones as he hauntingly exhorts his faithful and fearful parishioners, a number of whom want to escape from Jonestown.  Heartbreakingly, the anguished cries of babies can be heard in the background in what is part of the most distressing part of Nelson's documentary, while Jones' haunting voice crawls on with a icy detachment.

For all of Jim Jones' contradictions and malevolent actions, Nelson does not paint Jim Jones with a broad brush of evil.  Asked what was it that most jumped out at Nelson as he studied Jim Jones for his documentary, the director says, "he's such a fascinating character that there were so many things that jumped out, you know.  I think that one that you got at is that he is not all bad.  And that was hard to kind of realize and to come to, you know?  Sane people don't all flock to somebody who has an insane message or who's evil.  They didn't flock to Jim Jones because of that -- and this is one of the saddest things about the story -- is they flocked to him because of some goodness that they saw there or what they thought they saw.  They flocked there because they wanted to change the world and to make it a better place and Jim Jones promised he would do that.  They flocked there because of Jim Jones' message, which was a very positive one. . . so it's a complicated individual, and it's made me realize how complicated any individual like that has to be." 

Like all people in leadership positions or in cult-like followings (David Koresh of Waco, Texas, for example) there is something that has to draw people in, and Nelson explained this: "To get people to follow you, you know, you have to believe in your message and your message has to have something that attracts people to it, and your message has to also, you know, if it has any sustaining power, is deliver on its promise, and that's what I think the Peoples Temple did, for a long period of time."  The message, Nelson further elaborated, delivered on being part of community, and being "part of something bigger than yourself".  Nelson added, "so it wasn't all evil from the beginning."

One of the last photos of Emmett Louis Till, a 14-year-old brutally murdered by a white mob in Mississippi in 1955.  His mother Mamie Till Mobley, who died within the last four years, insisted on an open casket showing the mutilated and unrecognizable face of Mr. Till, in a showing of the body for four days.  Filmmaker Stanley Nelson chronicled the events in his award-winning 2004 documentary, "The Murder of Emmett Till".   (Photo: Mamie Till Mobley)

As Stanley Nelson discusses Jim Jones, he wrestles with the dichotomies of the troubled man who was responsible for the deaths of hundreds.  The push and pull of such a charismatic yet ultimately demonic person like Jim Jones clearly makes the director describe both sides of Jones. 

"But on the other hand, one of the things that's important that I think we did in the film was that we show that Jim Jones had this level of insanity and dysfunction from the very beginning.  I love the piece where we go back to Indiana and we talk to his friends who grew up with him who talk about how, as a really young kid he would kill cats so he could hold these elaborate funerals of cats.  There were problems from the beginning, and so I that that's one of the things -- if the film works for you -- that's so chilling about the film is that on one level there's this Peoples Temple that's very functional, you know, it's becoming -- the membership is growing, it's becoming more a part of Bay Area (in Northern California) politics.  Political leaders are flocking to Peoples Temple to talk about how wonderful Jim Jones is.  On the other hand there's this sexual and other dysfunctions going on in the church.  So these two things are happening simultaneously.  It's not like, oh, you know, all of a sudden Jim Jones took a pill one day and became evil.  There's this evil that was there from the very beginning, from the very beginning as a kid, but it's hidden and that's what makes the whole story even more scary and more creepy." 

A lot of the older black people came for the religion, the younger people came because they didn't believe in Christ, some of the older black people came there because Jim Jones promised he would take care of them, said the director.  This, he says is what made Peoples Temple so attractive to many.  The rare racial mix at American churches -- at least in Peoples Temple -- was something that was unique in America.

Did any of the survivors or the families of the victims forgive Jim Jones?

Only one person, Nelson remarked, and she did not have any family.

One person who was in a quandary about forgiveness was none other than Jim Jones, Jr. -- a black man adopted by Jim Jones when the younger Jones was a small boy in Indiana.  The adoption did not go well with people in Indiana at the time, and soon after Jones and his son moved to California, where the idea of building a temple of worship and utopia really took off.  At a screening, Nelson recalled, Jones Jr., responded to an audience member's question about what his thoughts were about his father by saying, "'I'm conflicted.  This is a white man who took me as an infant, adopted me out of an orphanage, a black boy . . . and gave me his name, named me Jim Jones Junior.  This is the man who taught me how to shoot a basketball.  This is the man who walked me to school.  This is the man who helped me do my homework.  I remember that and I love this man.  But on the other hand, this is the man who perpetrated this terrible evil.  And I hate this man.  And I'm conflicted.'"

"Jim Jones, Jr. is a fascinating character.  Fascinating."

The credit sequence that ends Nelson's film is as tough as anything that the viewer will see during the actual 87-minute documentary.  "When we talk about what people lost?," Nelson asks the interviewer.  "That's something that . . . the [film's] associate producer Kristin Lesko really pushed for us to do that.  We had talked about how do you convey at some point in the film, that the people that we interview all suffered great losses at Jonestown.  How do we let the viewer know that these people aren't just part of Peoples Temple but they all suffered great losses?"  Nelson remarked that they used shots of the participants of the film on set, specifically survivors and victims' families, as part of the end credits, with the number of family members that each lost.  "We just looked at it and said, 'holy cow', oh my god -- Kristin, you got to come see this."  Nelson and his film crew were blown away by the effect.  He mentioned that the film (which hits television screens next year in early April in the United States on PBS' "American Experience" program) was subject to a rule.  "PBS has a rule that credits are not supposed to run longer than 45 seconds . . . and I think our credits run about a minute and a half.  Because of that we are now negotiating with them to leave it as it is, because what we are saying . . . is that these aren't credits (at least in the ordinary understanding of the word), these are part of the film . . . it's just an incredible, it's just powerful.  You not only see what the people have lost, but you see the loss on their face.  And all those shots were taken after the interview -- this is what I get out of it -- you see how devastated these people are just because they have talked about this experience.  And then you see what they have lost and you realized what you have been sitting in for the last hour and a half."

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"Jonestown" has been on the nominations list of many awards shows, including most recently being among the final 15 contenders for an Academy Award nomination for best documentary feature.  Nelson will find out on January 23, 2007 whether his film makes the final five as a nominee.  For the director, the triumph of getting this often ridiculed and misunderstood nightmare on the big screen and told in a way that does justice to the victims' families and to the complexities of circumstance, was the thing that may be the most gratifying aspect of journeying through such a painful experience.  The film is making its way across America and in Canada in theaters everywhere.

Editor's note: There was much more on the subject of the Jonestown Massacre, Nelson's film "Jonestown" and potential similarities in the politics of leaders and their followers today, which was part of the extensive discussion with Mr. Nelson.  All of these topics will be featured in a Q and A transcript that will be posted here within the next week.

Photo of Stanley Nelson: Firelight Media

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