Arts Listings

Moving Pictures: ‘Jonestown: The Life and Death of People’s Temple’

By Justin DeFreitas
Friday November 03, 2006

Oakland director Stanley Nelson will attend screenings tonight (Friday) at Shattuck Cinemas for his new film, Jonestown: The Life and Death of People’s Temple.  

It’s the harrowing tale of the Rev. Jim Jones, an Indiana outcast drawn to the preacher’s life, who founded a temple, moved it to the Bay Area, and then when trouble came in the form of public scrutiny and allegations of financial corruption and physical and sexual abuse, flew his flock to Guyana where he built Jonestown, a supposed utopia where he and his followers could live free of “persecution.”  

It’s a story that, to Northern Californians, may seem at once both familiar and mysterious, a story we may have lived through but one that has been clouded by myths, misconceptions and gallows humor over the ensuing decades. Nelson’s film brings much unseen footage and documentation to the tale, including footage of Jones in the pulpit, audio and film from inside the Jonestown camp in Guyana, and even footage from the fateful day when Jones ordered the murder of Congressman Leo Ryan.  

Rep. Jackie Speier, aid to Ryan at the time, took a bullet that day and tells her story in one of the film’s many compelling and deeply emotional interviews. The footage from the assault was photographed by a cameraman who lost his life during the episode, essentially recording his own death. 

Other victims and followers of Jones tell their tales, candidly, passionately, tearfully and even at times with humor. It is a tribute to Nelson and co-producer Noland Walker that these people, after all they have gone through, are so comfortable before the camera.  

“For many, this was their best chance to talk to someone who would listen,” Nelson told the Daily Planet. Jim Jones, Jr. is one of the participants. He discusses the mixed feelings he still harbors for his infamous father. “This is the man who took him out of an orphanage,” Nelson says, “who taught him to shoot a basketball, who taught him how to read.” Yet he was also the manipulative megalomaniac who led 900 people to their deaths, a fate his son only survived by chance, having absented himself to play in a basketball tournament that day. 

It’s a gruesome tale and a difficult one to relive. It is Elmer Gantry come to life, only more violent and pathological, the sunglasses-clad rock star/preacher taking advantage of the vulnerability of people in need, of starry-eyed optimists looking for a home, for community, for friendship and love. “People’s Temple grew and became successful by promising many things and delivering on those promises: an integrated community, care for the elderly and social activism,” says Nelson. 

“If you want to see me as your father, I’ll be your father,” Jones told his flock. “If you want me to be your god, I’ll be your god.” He would be their Charon as well, whether they asked for it or not, shepherding them across international borders to a commune that would serve as their prison and as their graveyard.  

Nelson uses no narration to lead us through his film. Instead he allows his subjects to tell the story in their own words. And he provides never-before-heard audio of People’s Temple, final days, recently declassified by the CIA, in which a woman challenges Jones’ order to drink the poisoned Kool-Aid. Jones can be heard pleading with his followers. “Don’t be like this,” he says and assures them they are just “crossing over.” 

Nelson will attend one of the Friday evening screenings and will take questions and will be joined for the following screening by Jim Jones Jr. 




Directed by Stanley Nelson. Produced by Nelson and Noland Walker. Script by Walker and Marcia Smith. Photographed by Michael Chin. 85 minutes. Not rated. Playing at Shattuck Cinemas.