Borderlands (Zev Berman, 2007): 6.5/10

The Magic Flute (Ingmar Bergman, 1975): 7/10

La Guerre Est Finie (Alain Resnais, 1966): 7/10

Speed Racer (The Wachowski Brothers, 2008): 8/10

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Location: milwaukee, wi

Friday, October 27, 2006

MIFF: Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple (Stanley Nelson, 2006)

I doubt I will see a better documentary in 2006 than Jonestown, Stanley Nelson's exploration of Jim Jones and his Peoples Temple and the mass murder/suicide in Guyana in 1978. It started as an idealistic, socialist movement for social justice and racial equality, but soon, Jones became crazy with the power he had obtained and turned it into a cult that's eerily reminiscent of Nazi Germany, where children turned in parents for dissent and no one was safe. It all ended so tragically, but the events leading up to it are equally fascinating.

Nelson got unprescedented access to archival footage and interviews with members of Peoples Temple, as well as family members of some of those that died in Guyana. The most incredibly interesting interviews are with two men, both of whom had their whole family killed at Jonestown but managed to escape themselves through the jungles of Guyana. The interviewees tell of Jim Jones' childhood as an outcast, a boy from the wrong side of the tracks, and eventually a young man who embraces Christianity and founds a church based on social responsiblity and integration. Jones (and his wife, about whom we hear precious little) is the first white person to adopt a black child in the state of Indiana, and his family, as described by that child, Jim Jones Jr (who is a great, revealing interview, even though he never really says anything negative about his father), was one of the first "rainbow families." In the first half of the film, I really liked Jones, who preached racial acceptance and social justice decades before these things would be accepted by the mainstream as they (sort of) have been today.

Something happens to Jones, however, and he becomes increasingly power-hungry and paranoid, moving his parishoners first to San Francisco and then, the night before publication of a damning article, to Guyana, where 900+ would die. My main frustration with the film is that there is very little transition from activist Jones to crazy Jones; we find out nothing about what happened to make this change, or what those around him thought. This is mostly because Jones and those closest to him are all dead, but perhaps his son could have been informative in this way. The sinister turn of the Peoples Temple to a cult is so sudden, or perhaps, so gradual, that it's hard to believe it happened that way. But the facts are the facts, and that's what makes the story so compelling. The aftermath and details of Jones' death are also left untouched, another frustrating fact. What happened afterward? What was the public reaction, especially to the death of the congressman killed in Guyana? The ending could have been fleshed out quite a bit more.

The story of Jim Jones and his Peoples Temple is a geniunely fascinating one; Nelson got his hands on audio of Jones forcing the poisoned kool-aid onto the residents of Jonestown, and it literally left me shaking from fear and indignation. The descriptions of dying babies and family members are almost too much to bear. Jonestown is an incredibly researched, very impartial (as much as you can be, there is no external narration, at least) portrait of a social experiment gone very, very wrong because of the ego and paranoia of its leader. I knew very little of Jonestown beyond the basic facts, but I feel almost like an insider after seeing this film.


RIYL: Children Underground, The Weather Underground

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