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Premieres & Events

Reeler Screening Series Recap: Nelson Previews Jonestown at Makor

The Reeler Screening Series continued Monday evening at Makor, where filmmaker Stanley Nelson swung by to discuss a preview of his staggering new documentary Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple. The film opens Friday in New York, followed by a national roll-out in the weeks ahead; reaction was suitably strong last night as the crowd engaged its guest following the film. Check below for excerpts from our discussion.


Jonestown director Stanley Nelson (left) recounts the making of his film Monday night with Reeler editor S.T. VanAirsdale

Thanks as always to Alexandra Siegler at Makor for accommodating the series, and thanks also to the folks at Seventh Arts Releasing for their help in arranging the event. And of course, thanks to Mr. Nelson and all of you who attended; I can't overstate my appreciation.

Meanwhile, The Reeler returns to the Pioneer Theater Nov. 7 for a preview of director Steve Anderson's pleasing etymological documentary, Fuck. Special guests will be announced as soon as I have them confirmed. Stay tuned for that, and continue reading for more about Jonestown.

STANLEY NELSON ON REVISITING JONESTOWN IN 2006: "I've been asked that a lot, and I have an answer, but I'm not sure what the real answer exactly is. What happened is my wife -- Marcia Smith, who wrote the script -- heard Peoples Temple members on the radio three years ago. It was the 25th anniversary, and they sounded very much like they do in this film. She said, 'You've got to hear these people; it's just unbelievable. The way they talk about Peoples Temple is so different from the story that we know.' So we got the tape from NPR, and we were just amazed and blown away by the story that they told, which is so different. I knew what most people who were around at the time knew: that 900 people went down there with this maniac and they all killed themselves and drank the Kool Aid, and he was crazy and they were crazy. But they talked about it in such a different way, and so we started thinking about it. And then I think one of the things that happened was that we started looking at pictures of people from Jonestown and seeing all these really old black people and really old white people. What was going on? These people don't look crazy. They're not the kind of people that you'd think (would join) a cult. And there were young hippies and young people with afros, and I thought, 'What could have brought them all together?' And then we see Jim Jones looking like Elvis. And with those sunglasses? The more we started looking at the story, the more fascinating it became."

ON HOW TO TELL A FRESH VERSION OF AN OLD STORY: "One of the things I thought about in making the film is Citizen Kane, which anybody who's gone to film school or taken a film course has probably seen over and over again. First they tell you the whole story -- Kane dies. Then they tell you the story of who he was with the newsreels from his life. You know the whole story. Then they go back and kind of re-tell the story. So in a way, that's kind of what we wanted to do, because we know the only reason you're going to watch this film is because you know the end. We couldn't hide the end from you. So we tell you right away what happens; the first thing is the title that says 909 people died. Then we try to go back and explain or show you why and how that happened. One of the things that I think kind of guided us in this film is that we really wanted people to empathize with Peoples Temple members because we did. I think in some ways, what a lot of the people did in joining Peoples Temple was really courageous. The guy who says, 'I heard him one night, and the next day I got on the bus and was in California'? Sure, it's stupid. But in another way, nobody is going to do that kind of thing today. We all might be better off if we did -- especially if it wasn't with Jim Jones."

ON THE PARTICIPATION OF PEOPLES TEMPLE MEMBERS AND JONESTOWN SURVIVORS: "A lot of people are very, very sensitive. I've never called anybody fragile before, but they're very fragile, some of the people who were in Peoples Temple. So we tried to approach everybody gingerly, let them know what we were doing and try not to give them any kind of hard sell. We didn't tell them -- like you do as a filmmaker sometimes -- 'Your life is going to be better if you do this. Everything is going to work out. You really need to do this.' We didn't do that. We met with everybody before we filmed them; we just tried to talk to them. We said: 'We just want to meet. We're not going to film, not going to have an audiotape recorder. We're not going to do anything. We're just going to talk. We'll take notes, but we're not going to use anything you tell us in the film.' We started meeting one or two people, and then more and more, because a lot of them have stayed in contact with each other.

"We probably pre-interviewed 40 people, and of those, we shot about 30. And probably of the 40 we interviewed, about 35 agreed to be in the film. There were five people who didn't want to be in the film for one reason or another. There was one woman who has teenage kids, and they don't even know she was part of Peoples Temple. And so I completely understood why she might not want to be in the film. I respected that. And if they said they didn't want to be in the film, I just gave them my card and said, 'If you change your mind or have any questions, just call me.' But that was it."

ON THE PARTICIPATION OF JIM JONES JR: "You saw him. I mean, Jim Jones Jr. is so normal -- he is that guy. At the end of the film, where we tell you what people lost? That all comes from after we finished the interviews. We just pulled the camera back and shot for a minute or so, and you see how they look: devastated. Jim Jones came into the interview, (Nelson raised his voice and grinned gregariously) 'Hey! Sorry I'm late! Let's get this thing going!' I mean, he's a pharmaceuticals salesman! And he actually said at one point in the conversation: 'For a while I called myself James Jones because I didn't want people to know. Now I call myself Jim Jones, and I sell pharmaceuticals. And I go in and they say, "You didn't drink the Kool-Aid, did you?" And because I'm black, they don't know. Then when I tell them that was my Dad and they get all quiet? They buy the pharmaceuticals every time.'

"But then on the other hand, we were at a screening at a film festival, and somebody asked what he thought of his father. And he said, 'I love my father. This is the man who took me out of an orphanage when I was a baby. This is a man who walked me to school. This is a man who sat with me to do my homework. And I love him for that. But I also know he's the person who devastated so many people's lives and was responsible for so many deaths, and I hate him for that. And I've got to live with that.' It was just an incredible thing to say. So there's this one part of him that's skimming along the surface, but there's another part that's right there and is very deep. I look at Jim Jones Jr. as the ultimate survivor. He was a little baby who willed himself out of that orphanage, and as a grown man, he's willed himself out of Jonestown, and he's willed himself to have a life and a family and keep going."

Posted at October 17, 2006 12:46 PM

Comments (1)

Great story. I live in FL, so I hope i get to see this movie eventually.

I have recently started researching the People of Jonestown. Not Jim Jones Sr, but the mass of people. As in mass suicide or mass murder. The story has never been adequately told of the many nice, normal, hopeful and loving people who ended up dying in a jungle in Guyana. I hope this movie was a step in the right direction!

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