Beyond the Multiplex

The year's most powerful documentary reveals the truth behind Jonestown. Plus: What if Bergman had made "The Exorcist"?


Andrew O'Hehir
October 19, 2006 3:00PM (UTC)

I first saw Stanley Nelson's film "Jonestown: The Life and Death of People's Temple" last spring in the Tribeca Film Festival. Amid the bleary buzz of a film festival, you might see four or five movies in a day, and it's easy to become jaded or detached: Oh, it's another earnest drama about a decaying heartland relationship. Oh, it's another documentary about suffering in some distant land. Movies start to look like marketing problems or technical equations, crafted objects rather than works of art. Are the "beats" in the right place? Is the third act mishandled? How will this play to exhibitors? Is HBO interested?

Then there are the movies where you forget all that, the ones that leave you devastated, that remind you that film at its best is a complex and ambiguous medium that uses pictures and sound to explore, and evoke, some of the essential mystery of being alive on planet Earth. Despite the gruesome and sensationalistic character of its subject matter, "Jonestown" is one of those. I knew it was a powerful film when I saw it, and it's stuck with me more than any other documentary this year. (With the possible exception of Eric Steel's "The Bridge," the film about Golden Gate Bridge jumpers, which will also be released this month. Do not under any circumstances watch these pictures as a double bill.)

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Nelson won one of the MacArthur Foundation's "genius" grants in 2002, based largely on his outstanding historical documentary "Marcus Garvey: Look for Me in the Whirlwind." (He also directed "The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords," which I haven't seen.) You heard a little low-key murmuring about this award; I think some people suspected that the MacArthur folks were looking for an African-American filmmaker to boost, and felt that in the universe of starving documentarians, Nelson's modest body of work did not stand out.

Well, move on to another target, p.c.-bashers, because since getting his grant Nelson has produced a series of fascinating films, including "The Murder of Emmett Till" -- the best work so far on that era-defining case -- and "A Place of Our Own," an affectionate study of the elite black resort community on Martha's Vineyard. "Jonestown" is something else again. A work of intensive historical research and open-minded, open-hearted humanity, it captures the full scope of trauma and tragedy surrounding the notorious mass suicide in Guyana in November 1978 as no other document ever has or (one suspects) ever can.

As I wrote in April, Jonestown was where the dreams of the '60s went to die. People's Temple, the activist San Francisco church headed by the Rev. Jim Jones, a charismatic Pentecostal minister, did not begin as a creepazoid apocalyptic cult. People who grew up in the Bay Area in the 1970s (as I did) may understand this already, but most of the world does not. The idea that 909 brainwashed wackos followed their nutjob leader into death in a South American jungle is easier to swallow, perhaps, than the idea that those people were a group of essentially normal, loving, idealistic Americans who tried to build a realm of hope in the aftermath of the civil rights era, and ultimately surrendered to despair.

Nelson had no personal connection to Jonestown 1978; he was a young man in New York when it happened. "All I knew about it at the time was that 900-something people had followed this maniac to Guyana and killed themselves," he tells me in a telephone interview. "But the more I looked into it and learned about it, the more I came to understand that wasn't the real story. How do you get 900 crazy people in one place? You can't do it. Which leaves the idea that these were 900 normal people, and maybe that's even scarier."

As he read and heard testimony from former members of People's Temple, Nelson says, "They sounded so sane and so normal. Their reasons for joining People's Temple were good reasons. They were reasons that might attract anybody to join. They sounded like reasons I might have wanted to join. Then, when I started to see the pictures, I was totally mesmerized. Here were all these old black people, old white people. My reaction was: These people would never join a cult! White hippies, young black people with Afros. What could possibly bring all these people together?"

What had brought them together was Jim Jones, a white kid raised dirt-poor in a tiny Indiana town who had felt a curious connection to African-Americans from his earliest years. Traveling around the country to meet former Jones acquaintances and People's Temple members, Nelson gradually accumulated an archive of previously unknown materials, ranging from Jones' early years as a preacher in early-'60s Indiana to his rollicking San Francisco services to the final, dark days in the Guyana jungle.

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"We interviewed a lot of people about Jones, about his preaching style and his message," Nelson says, "but when we started to find video of him actually preaching, I found we didn't need to talk about it too much. We have one person saying that People's Temple was essentially a black church. I mean, when you see and hear him, he's a black preacher. He sounds black, he's incredibly charismatic, and he has an upbeat message, a very activist message. It's incredible to hear him preach, actually."

Yet all along there was a dark, messianic streak running beneath Jones' powerful preaching, and it was one his congregation responded to. Nelson found boyhood friends of Jones in Indiana who say he was always a strange, lonely child. Even as he preached a gospel of racial and social justice ("apostolic socialism," in Jones' own words) and built impressive self-sustaining communities, first in Indianapolis and later in Ukiah, Calif., and San Francisco, Jones had sexual relationships with literally dozens of congregants of both sexes, and publicly humiliated followers who were seen as disobedient.

His church became a source of left-wing political power in San Francisco, and Jones and his followers were openly courted by then-Mayor George Moscone and other officials. After a 1977 investigative article by Marshall Kilduff and Phil Tracy (published by the late, lamented New West magazine) began to uncover the church's unseemly and probably illegal underside, Jones ordered his congregants to follow him to Guyana, where he had purchased a remote parcel of jungle and begun to build a camp. Most of them did, willingly and happily, accepting his argument that they needed to build a communal utopia away from the racist and corrupt society of the United States.

"The film details a gradual change that everybody went through in People's Temple," Nelson says. "They were in search of something bigger, in search of a big prize. There's a dark undercurrent there the whole time, but that said, there was a real break once they went to Guyana. There were no checks and balances, and very little contact with the outside world. Jim Jones had total power, and they were no longer this socially active church, no longer trying to change the world.

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"I believe that what happened in the end at Jonestown drove a final nail into the coffin of all the idealism of the late '60s and early '70s," Nelson continues. "You know, is this what all that leads to, the final day in Jonestown? You hear an audiotape in our film of Jim Jones telling people to drink the poison, and all around him you hear children, men, women screaming and dying. He's telling them to 'die with some degree of dignity.' What kind of person not only says that, but tape-records it? It's absolutely incredible."

Indeed, that tape recording, and the testimony of survivors about the day of the mass suicide, as they watched their loved ones, friends and children die all around them, is one of the most difficult things I've ever had to sit through in a motion picture. "We're calling it the date movie of the year," Nelson says drily.

There isn't much of a message of hope or redemption delivered in "Jonestown." But Nelson says, "I want you to see why people joined People's Temple, and why people stayed. They were getting something out of the church that they couldn't get anywhere else. People's Temple was delivering on its promises, and that's important to understand. They told people: We'll give you a multiracial, multigenerational community. We'll give you something to work for, and something to work toward. They did that, and for the most part the people who signed up for that were highly fulfilled. That's what makes it all so heartbreaking -- what that finally turned into in the end."

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"Jonestown: The Life and Death of People's Temple" opens Oct. 20 at the Quad Cinema in New York, Oct. 27 at the Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles, Nov. 3 in San Francisco, Nov. 10 in Milwaukee and Portland, Ore., Nov. 20 in Austin, Texas, and Dec. 8 in Denver, with more cities to follow.

"Requiem": If Ingmar Bergman had made "The Exorcist" ...
I keep urging you to see these supposedly extraordinary foreign-language flicks that play for a few days in a few big cities, and you keep filing them deep in the recesses of your brain and forgetting about it. That's you I'm talking to! Admit it! Well, hell, I wouldn't see half of them if it weren't my job, but listen: "Requiem," the new film from German director Hans-Christian Schmid, is absolutely astonishing. See it if you possibly can.

I'm not exactly following "Jonestown" with something more upbeat. "Requiem" is the story of a sheltered, religious student in the university town of Tübingen, sometime in the mid-'60s, who becomes convinced that she's possessed by demons. Without issuing any spoilers, let's just say that nothing good comes of this, whatever your spiritual inclination or lack thereof. "Requiem" is a meticulous, masterly work of cinema, built around the amazing performance of Sandra Hüller as Michaela, the awkward and repressed ugly duckling at the center of the story.

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Schmid captures Michaela's world with a minimum of expository back story; in her eager, fumbling manner we can see both her ambition and her shyness. A devout Catholic from a tiny rural village, she wants to go to college despite her uncontrolled epilepsy. But she's ill-prepared for the rock 'n' roll, free love and philosophical anarchy of German university life, circa 1966, which seems both inviting and hostile. Her seizures grow worse; she hears horrible voices when she tries to pray or touch the rosary. Yet sacraments of a different sort are available to her: She drinks alcohol for the first time, dances with abandon at campus parties, surrenders her virginity to a likable chemistry major (Nicholas Reinke).

There's nothing explicit about Michaela's visions, which Schmid suggests with the very subtlest of visual and auditory manipulations. Most viewers will conclude, along with Michaela's friends, that she's simply losing her mind in an especially vivid fashion. But the dice are not loaded, and a believer could choose to view "Requiem" through quite a different lens. Although the film is loosely based on real events (the same 1976 exorcism that inspired "The Exorcism of Emily Rose"), it's closer in spirit to Ingmar Bergman's "Through a Glass Darkly" than to TV demonology.

Schmid's cast is sensational throughout. At first, Burghart Klaussner and Imogen Kogge, as Michaela's parents, may seem like caricatures of rural German uprightness, but both are eventually revealed in far more depth. Anna Blomeier injects some rationality as Michaela's only real friend, and Jens Harzer plays the increasingly creepy young priest who seems to be channeling his true feelings about Michaela into dark, subterranean tunnels. Visually, the film is a marvel, capturing both the oddly beautiful Hüller and the unremarkable scenery of southwestern Germany with a severe and beautiful clarity.

"Requiem" opens Oct. 20 at the IFC Center in New York, Oct. 27 at the Music Hall in Los Angeles, and Nov. 17 at the Music Box in Chicago, with more cities to follow.

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Fast forward: Sleeping with the enemy in "Conventioneers"; uncovering Mom and Dad's buried secrets in "51 Birch Street"
Mora Stephens' docudrama "Conventioneers" doesn't work on all levels, but it's an appealing and ambitious story of love across the American political divide, set against the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York. Shooting her characters against numerous real-life protests during convention week, Stephens was actually arrested (along with several other crew members) and held with protesters in the NYPD's improvised detainment cells along the Manhattan waterfront.

Matt Mabe plays Dave Massey (known to everyone, frat-boy style, by last name alone), a cheerful, upstanding Texan in town as a Bush delegate. Woodwyn Koons, a reedy sprite balanced on the cusp between wisdom and neurosis, plays Lea, a protest leader who's helping to organize a contingent of flag-draped coffins, symbolizing the war dead in Iraq, during the major convention-week march. But Massey and Lea have some unfinished personal business. They were college friends who never hooked up, and the flame, it seems, burns unabated.

There's tremendous awkwardness to "Conventioneers." It's shot guerrilla-style, with whatever lighting happened to be available, and the sound values are different in almost every scene. But I was engrossed by it all the way through; Massey and Lea are flawed but recognizable characters, and while I'm willing to bet that Stephens is closer to Lea's lefty politics, neither is made to look perfect, and neither is condescended to. Their guilt and confusion (Lea's engaged to a playwright; Massey's displaced Texas wife is in D.C., sucking down the booze) are palpable, as is their besotted wonder at finding each other under these circumstances. This is an ingenious film that makes up in verve and daring what it may lack in budget and technique. (Opens Oct. 20 at the Village East in New York, with other cities to follow.)

The only link I can draw to Doug Block's sad and sharp-witted family documentary "51 Birch Street" is that any film buff drawn to underdog movies will love this one too. When Block's beloved mother dies and his father suddenly hooks up with a woman who was his secretary 40 years ago, the filmmaker (also the director of "Home Page" and "The Heck With Hollywood!") finds himself drawn into the mystery of his parents' 54-year marriage, digging through his archive of family videos and his mother's boxes of long-hidden journals. He doesn't know what he'll find, and isn't sure he wants to find it.

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Although "51 Birch Street" is a defiantly personal work, about one particular Jewish American family in suburban New York in the last half of this century, a strange alchemy occurs that makes it feel universal as well. (As Block gleefully observes, the film has been sold to both Israeli TV and to al-Jazeera.) I found myself reflecting on the peculiar, half-hidden stories of pain and betrayal in my own family, and you will too. Although there's a tremendous current of sadness and loss in Block's film, which extends, perhaps unconsciously, to the way he presents himself, learning the truth (or as much of it as he can) turns out, at least in this case, to be both liberating and redemptive. (Now playing at Cinema Village in New York. Opens Oct. 20 in Los Angeles, and Nov. 3 in Chicago, Minneapolis and San Francisco, with more cities to follow.)


Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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