In a pivotal scene in Jonestown: The Life and Death of the Peoples Temple, there is a sign prominently hanging in the background of the Jonestown pavilion that reads “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It's a well worn phrase, but particularly pertinent to this chilling story.
My peers and I, most born the year the massacre happened or after, grew up knowing of Jonestown as an odd historical footnote at most, we all knew about the kool-aid, but very little about what actually happened. This ignorance of the past makes well made documentaries like this, which originally aired on PBS' American Experience so important. Particularly as the news becomes more and more focused on the inane and trivial. If you saw the amount of coverage “legitimate” news gave to an unflattering photo of Jennifer Love Hewitt's totally normal but not perfect behind, you know exactly what I mean. Couldn't anyone on staff take the hours spent to berate a woman for her body and research our country's grand history – shouldn't they do what this documentary does, and remind people today of what has come before?
Perhaps people are longing for this kind of information and that is why this film was seen by so many people, it's one of the few out on DVD which almost all of my friends have rented. Other friends saw it on TV, and it seems like there might be two edits out there, so be sure to watch all the deleted scenes on the website.
The story itself is a harrowing, deeply disturbing one, made even more upsetting by the fact that it all began with such good intentions. Jim Jones grew up poor and an outsider, so his preachings always taught acceptance, and, in a particularly unfriendly time, insisted on integration and an interracial congregation. Even today, seeing the photographs of the peoples temple seems more progressive than we have managed to come in the past few decades.
Sadly the honorable notions of equality and dignity were in the hands of a mad man. The scope of the destruction, especially in the faces of the men and women personally affected is massive. The last half hour of the film I was barely breathing. The quick escalation into mayhem is, remarkably, largely caught on film and as a result you can clearly imagine being present, a frightful feeling indeed.
Despite a huge amount of footage, access, and witnesses, though, you still can't help from wanting more, that one piece of information that will explain the why. Unfortunately, the 909 people who might have supplied more information, can't.