By Noah Fowle
It is rare to find a documentary that contains more suspense and horror than any of the scary movies arriving in time for Halloween. But in Jonestown, Director Stanley Nelson gives the medium a powerful shot in this eerie exploration of Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple, and the infamous mass suicide in Guyana, presenting a striking look past the sensational headlines and into the fractured psyches responsible for the grim tragedy. For the first time, the public is given a clear and chronological explanation of how Jones influence grew from that of a socialist-leaning preacher to a cult leader whose revolting rhetoric convinced 914 of his followers to ingest cyanide laced Kool-Aid in an effort to die with dignity.
Told through archival footage and interviews with surviving members of the church, Nelson first focuses on Jim Jones. Raised in rural Indiana, he was the product of a dysfunctional family, and as one childhood friend describes, obsessed with religion and death. An educated man, Jones eventually found some solace for himself in the Pentecostal Church and began to shape his career. Through unearthed footage of the churchs joyous services, full of music and praise, and a growing sense of community, Jones appears at first to be a dedicated socialist, searching for ways to bring true integration to America. But as the survivors continue to dissect their own individual experiences, Joness duplicitous nature emerges. Most often seen in photographs and videos wearing large sunglasses that hid his eyes, it comes as no surprise that Jones spoke one message of peace and understanding from his pulpit, and a completely different one behind closed doors. Instances of physical abuse, public humiliation, and even rape are recounted and the films overall sense of dread only grows.
By the time the film traces the churchs relocation from California to Guyana, where members were all isolated from their friends and family in the U.S., there is a desperate sense of urgency. Jones covert intimidation and mind control made it increasingly difficult for journalists to get any members of the church to speak openly without fear of repercussions, and he implemented increasingly cruel spying and loyalty tests that had family members informing on one another. But by 1978, there was enough attention that a California Congressman, Leo Ryan, organized a trip to the churchs agricultural camp with a team of journalists to find out what was really happening. There, the story takes a desperate turn towards brutality, as Jones transforms from charlatan to mass murderer. Feeling that their carefully implemented power structure was eroding beneath them, Jones and his most loyal followers ditched their shadowy games for full-out assaults on their detractors. In the films final chilling moments, we see pictures of the bloated bodies discovered in the aftermath as Jones demonic messages play over a loud speaker. Theres no heaven up there, so well have to make heaven down here, he says. While Jones always denied being a publicity hound, the great tragedy seems to be that by the time people started to pay attention to his veiled threats, it was too late.