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Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple

Documentary short list: A look at the films vying for a nom in Oscar's docu feature category

Country: United States

Director: Stanley Nelson

Topic: Chronicle of the rise and fall of Peoples Temple and its charismatic leader, Jim Jones, who in November, 1978 convinced his hundreds of followers in Jonestown, Guyana, to commit mass suicide.

Financing: Produced by PBS docu division American Experience, the film’s funding was provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Liberty Mutual, the Scotts Co., the Ford Foundation, the Corporation Public Broadcasting and Public Television viewers.

Budget: $800,000

Shooting format: HD camera

Why it stands out: Nelson unearthed — and deftly weaved together — 400 hours of audiotape recordings made by cult members, as well as copious 16 mm footage shot by one Jonestown denizen who happened to be professional filmmaker.

Memorable scene: At a San Francisco sermon, Jones “heals” a wheelchair-bound woman, a powerful scene accentuated when the voiceover reveals this woman to be a plant.

Distribution status: Seventh Art Releasing presented the film theatrically in 30 cities. It had garnered $83,607 in box office revenue through November. The film will air April 9 on PBS, with PBS Home Video subsequently distributing the DVD.

On the making of the film: “In 2003, I was listening to a radio program on the 25th anniversary of the Peoples Temple tragedy, and the story they were telling was so different from what I thought happened,” Nelson explains. “They talked of all the good works that the temple had done. People joined because they didn’t believe in segregation and wanted to live in harmony with each other. This was the platform that drew these people to Jim Jones. They weren’t a group of crazy people. These were idealistic people that slowly had their humanity stripped away as they desperately clung to an ideal. I wanted to tell that story.”

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