The Life and Death of People’s Temple

Directed by Stanley Nelson. US. 2006.

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This documentary as part of PBS’s American Experience (their similar to our own BBC’s Storyville) was first seen at the 2006 London Film Festival.  It uses a key moment in late 1970s American history and a character who tried to be bigger than the American government. 

Jim Jones was a white pastor who started his own church so he could have people follow him.  Brought up in the deep south, Jones was raised amongst black people so instantly you have questions of race and class divide.  With his insatiable desire for power, you have a man who is power hungry, manipulative and ultimately, paranoid.   

The documentary focuses on the world’s biggest mass suicide on November 18th, 1978 in Guyana when near to 900 people followed Jones’ lead.  Using first hand details of the events and survivors stories it paints a picutre of people who believed until the curtain was pulled back, to reveal the true nature of the wizard.  Jones’ paranoia and megalomania become apparent when it was too late. 

What works well for this documentary upon viewing it in this country is that very little is known about Jones and People’s Temple apart from the mass suicide.  Little is known about the man himself and where it not so true, he would make a brilliant fictitious character - but you can see the influence of him in certain American genre pictures with the pastor as evil.  But Jones is a convincing villain, full of charisma and knowingness in his ability as a showman.  The archive footage of his sermons portray him as a man adored by those who are vulnerable and being manipulated into giving up their life to be a part of this new community, especially the black community who are already below the poverty line and so you  have these conflicts in terms of race and class. 

But while Jones’ delusional mission was wrong in the long run, the survivors are still gripped by his presence saying at least they tried to change the world.  But how can these people have some sort of remorse or forgiveness for a man who killed their loved ones and the children first. 

A gripping documentary that becomes a thriller with a great villain.  Nelson directs with a keen affinity to the subject matter and provides a film of interest and vitality. 

Jamie Garwood
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