Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple

I was 7 years old when the Peoples Temple members drank poison and died in Guyana. I remember my mother and father telling me about what had happened - not in any particular detail, to be fair - and going on from there to tell me about cults and how dangerous they were. To them, cults ran the gamut from the Moonies to the Hare Krishnas to the bible thumping fundamentalist Christians in the giant new church down the block. It definitely planted a seed of fascination in my brain. I guess it didn't keep me from joining one of the biggest religious cults in the world, though - congratulations to Pope Francis, by the way!

What this documentary did really well was show the Peoples Temple, in particular their congregants, as being human beings who believed that they were doing something important and special, as opposed to the stereotype of braindead lemmings who were busy being too stupid to live until they did as they were told and drank the bug juice and died. The interviewees are thoughtful and express what the Temple meant to them. While Jim Jones is an enigmatic figure at best and a vile monster at worst, it feels like much effort was put into showing as many facets of him as possible.

While Jones' church had been around since the mid 1950's, practicing the tenets of integration and socialism while moving from Indiana to waaay northern NoCal, then to SF and finally Jonestown, Guyana, the film really focuses upon the 70's. This provides a strong vibe of love and community gone rancid that is very affecting at times. It makes some revelations even stronger, among them that Jones would tell male Temple members that if they wanted him to fuck them in the ass, hey, no problem. Huh? I mean, I had heard of Jones' sexual proclivities but after much of the movie showing him as a kind of oddball preacher with perhaps a bit of a Messiah complex I had almost forgotten how scuzzy he was supposed to have been. Likewise, the more sordid accusations against Jones and the Temple regarding corporal punishment, overworking employees/volunteers, taking members' possessions and paychecks, and stifling any voiced opposition were all things my parents had told me when I was little. It's a credit to the film that these were brought out without heavy musical cues or other obvious drama. It was more unsettling that way.

Speaking of unsettling, the end of this film is pretty disturbing. I mean, obviously you know what's going to happen. It gets progressively spookier, though, to see the footage from Jonestown - with hundreds of dancing, singing, seemingly happy people (most of them, anyway). Dozens of kids, and moms and dads, and old folks, even a politician and his staff and a film crew - the vast majority of whom were all doomed. The feeling of dread and death is strong, as is the hopelessness and ultimate meaninglessness of what happened. This has to be one of the most depressing things ever shown on PBS.

Tomorrow:The Human Centipede II - Full Sequence

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