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Returning to Jonestown

Posted at 5:06 PM on November 30, 2006 by Euan Kerr

Before David Koresh, before Aum Shinrikyo, there was Jim Jones. On one level he was just another charismatic religious leader whose personal demons resulted in disaster for his followers.

What is different about Jim Jones was the degree of how his rise and fall was captured on film.

Jones led his followers in the San Francisco-based People's Temple to Guyana to build Jonestown. It would be a utopian community based on Jones' potent blend of Christianity, racial egalitarianism, and socialism.

The news that Jones had ordered the murder of a US Congressman and that more than 900 followers were dead in what is believed to be the largest mass suicide in modern history shocked the world.

Now director Stanley Nelson and screenwriter Marcia Smith have taken a collection of archive footage and a host of new survivor interviews to document what happened during the strange and twisted career of Jim Jones. The result is "Jonestown:The Life and Death of the People's Temple." It opens this weekend at the Oak Street in Minneapolis.

It's a chilling portrait which shows how Jones survived a boyhood in a dysfunctional home then rose to create a powerful church which offered hope to people left disillusioned in the backwash of the hippy era.

He achieved remarkable things: creating a color-blind congregation that built special facilities for its seniors and developed programs which drew in more and more people who discovered peace and meaningful life in the Temple. Some of the most interesting scenes in the early part of the film come from the descriptions from People's Temple members about how the organization offered them a new beginning.

Yet they also relate the early signs of Jim Jones' problems: his paranoia, and his desire to control every aspect of his congregations behavior. They talk about how they each came to learn of Jones voracious sexual appetites.

The survivors talk of how he brainwashed them. He kept them working so they were all getting just a few hours sleep a night. He demanded complete loyalty and encouraged other Temple members to beat transgressors for even the smallest of infractions.

We all know how this story ends of course, but it's hard to turn away. The descriptions of what happened leading up to that fateful day in Jonestown in 1978 are heart-rending. Add the footage of what happened on the day of the massacre when Congressman Ryan and his staff arrived with a host of journalists and you have a shocking examination of how personal power can go terribly awry.

The story of Jonestown is often characterized as being the story of Jim Jones, but Nelson and Smith show it's really the story of the people who got sold a dream which ended in cups of cyanide-laced fruit punch.

November 2006
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