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Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple

Stanley Nelson's unflashy, straightforward account of Jim Jones and his great social experiment -- which notoriously culminated in the largest mass murder/suicide in modern memory -- "Jonestown" offers a welcome antidote to more sensational exposes. Docu constitutes a revealing look at a poorly understood chapter in American history.

Veteran documentarian Stanley Nelson’s “Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple” is an unflashy, straightforward account of Jim Jones and his great social experiment — which notoriously culminated in the largest mass murder/suicide in modern memory. Interviews with ex-Temple members and the victims’ relatives, rare home movies, and film shot on the last fateful day in Guyana make clear the grandeur of Jones’ initial vision of racial equality as well as the operatic demagoguery of his ministry’s final paranoid stages. PBS-bound docu constitutes a revealing look at a poorly understood chapter in American history.

Nelson traces the interwoven altruistic and psychopathic aspects of Jones’ personality back to his childhood in Indiana, then a KKK stronghold. Neighbors recall a kid from the wrong side of the tracks who, on the one hand, was fervently committed to social justice but, on the other, was wont to stab cats to death before solemnly burying them.

Jones founded an interracial ministry in 1961 in Indianapolis, and, in 1965, he migrated with several members of his congregation to Ukiah, Calif.

Vintage color footage shows congregants building the temple and tilling the soil at the socialist-model commune. In exchange for a 20% tithe (which eventually evolved into the surrender of all of one’s possessions), members were assured of clothing, food, shelter and care.

In 1971, Jones moved to San Francisco, where his followers grew into a force for political activism. Television and newsreel clips of marches and rallies, prominently showcasing Jones alongside political candidates, alternate with never-before-seen homemovies of Temple services featuring faith healings by the charismatic leader.

The Peoples Temple relocated to the wilds of Guyana in 1977. The amazingly detailed visual record of the last days of Guyana furnished by the film crew that accompanied Congressman Leo Ryan, though familiar to many, here replays in compressed form both the extraordinary promise of Jones’ movement and also its gruesome betrayal.

Ryan’s aide and a soundman, who survived their wounds from the sneak attack that killed the congressman and his cameraman, provide running commentary.

Two of the few still-living survivors of the enforced drinking of cyanide-laced Kool-Aid, recount those events, discreetly accompanied by photographs of the sprawled bodies of more than 900 victims.

Tech credits are fine.

Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple

Production: An American Experience presentation of a Firelight Media production. Executive producer, Mark Samuels. Co-producer, Nolad Walker. Directed by Stanley Nelson. Written by Marcia Smith.

Crew: Camera (color, DV), Michael Chin; editors, Lewis Erskine, Aljernon Tunsil; music, Tom Phillips; sound, Sara Chin; associate producer, Kristin Lesko. Reviewed at Tribeca Cinemas, New York, April 17, 2006. (In Tribeca Film Festival -- competing.) Running time: 85 MIN.

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