Produced for the PBS series American Experience, Stanley Nelson’s Jonestown: The Life and Death of the Peoples’ Temple, written by his frequent collaborator Marcia Smith, examines the infamous religious cult formed by Jim Jones and the events that led to the group’s horrifying mass suicide in 1978. The film traces Jones’ history from his unhappy childhood in rural Indiana.
Witnesses describe a strange, charismatic young man who nursed a seemingly sincere desire for social justice, but also reputedly murdered small animals as a child. Jones’ desire to befriend people across color and class lines alienated his family and neighbors. Eventually, he moved to Indianapolis, where, as a young Pentecostal minister, he started the city’s first integrated church.
Eventually, Jones moved his church to California to escape the racism he perceived in Indiana. In Redwood Valley, his church took on a new life, and he began aggressively recruiting new members. At first, members were required to tithe a percentage of their worth, but eventually, they were expected to relinquish all of their “worldly goods” to the Temple. In 1974, Jones moved to San Francisco, where he acquired some political clout before his high profile caught up with him.
Just before a damaging exposé was published, he moved his people to what was meant to be a “paradise” outside the racism and oppression of America, in Guyana. Nelson interviews eyewitnesses, including many former members of the Temple, and members of Congressman Leo Ryan’s staff who managed to escape when the congressman’s investigatory visit ended in bloodshed. The film had its world premiere at the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival.