If you live in or truly love San Francisco, you’ve seen The Times of Harvey Milk. Rob Epstein’s 1984 movie is one of the best nonfiction features ever made. It’s also one of the greatest movies about this city. Only time will tell whether Stanley Nelson’s new documentary, Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, is a work of similar importance, but the fact that I’m even mentioning it in the same context as Epstein’s movie says something about the reserved precision of its journalistic reasoning and the overwhelming emotional force of its finale.
Of course, there is another reason to connect Jonestown and The Times of Harvey Milk. The murder of Supervisor Milk and Mayor George Moscone by Dan White took place 10 days after the deaths of Jim Jones, Congressman Leo Ryan, and more than 900 members of Jones’s Peoples Temple in Jonestown, Guyana, on November 18, 1978. One tragedy claimed the life of a man who was already a civil rights hero, while the other led mainstream media and true crime sources to portray a human being as a monster. Just as Epstein’s movie profoundly humanizes Milk, Nelson’s movie digs beneath stereotypes of pure evil to reveal a different Jones than the one used to sell quickie television and paperback biographies.
Twenty-eight years later, the tragedy in Guyana and the Milk-Moscone murders still have an effect on San Francisco politics: In very different ways, they represent the death of progressive, district-based local activism and its afterlife. (Garrett Scott, codirector of the superb documentaries Cul de Sac: A Suburban War Story and Occupation: Dreamland, was in the early stages of making a movie about the two events and their relationship to SF politics when he died earlier this year.) It seemed appropriate to have New York native Nelson discuss his movie with a contemporary political figure whose knowledge of local history runs deep. On the eve of Jonestown’s screenings at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival, former San Francisco mayoral candidate Matt Gonzalez agreed to interview Nelson about the roads leading to the cataclysmic events of 1978 and the roads leading away from it.
MATT GONZALEZ I want to start by saying I had a typical impression of Jim Jones as a cult leader whose message was a hustle to get people into his church so he could take advantage of them when they were vulnerable. The thing that jumped out immediately to me in this film was that the fundamental part of his message throughout his ministry was this idea of racial integration and equality. The main component was there at the beginning, and in a place like Indiana, when Indianapolis was a Ku Klux Klan stronghold. It made me rethink and see him as someone who exhibited a certain genuineness and courage at that time.
Did that surprise you about him?
STANLEY NELSON The depth of his commitment surprised me. During one of the anniversaries of the deaths in Guyana, I heard some Peoples Temple members talking about it on [the radio]. I started thinking, "This involved over 900 people — all these people weren't crazy. So what was it that drove them to the church?"
Research made me realize that there was something much deeper going on and that this was a real political movement for a lot of the time the church was in existence.
MG Jones had been a member of a human rights commission out in Indiana. That also underscores a very self-conscious relationship between his church and what was happening in society.
SN Yes. [In the film] there's that incredible audiotape when he's giving his own history, where he talks about how his father didn't want to let a black kid in his house. Jim Jones says, "I won't come in either," and he doesn't see his father for years after that.
I don't think it was a hustle at all, I think it was something he truly did believe in. Jim Jones was a very complicated individual. Everybody's complicated — there are no simple people — but Jim Jones was much more complicated than most of us.
MG How hard was it to find folks in Indiana who knew Jones?
SN It was hard. But Lynn [Jones's hometown] was very small, and we were able to find one person who could lead us to others. One thing that's amazing when you do research is that you can go to high schools and grade schools, and they still have yearbooks. You find people's names, use the phone book, and just start calling.
MG Over time, Peoples Temple gets a financial foundation because its members give their property to Jones. He's then able to set up communal living arrangements. But when he's in Indiana, if I'm to understand correctly, he's selling monkeys door to door or something like that.
Was his message about communal living a part of the hustle, or do you think that was also a belief that he genuinely held?
SN I think he genuinely believed it. That component really came out of Ukiah, in Redwood Valley, where they [Peoples Temple] had this farm. People actually did travel with him from Indiana [in 1965], so how were they going to live when they'd sold their houses? They could live communally.
One thing that I found fascinating is that the older people who lived in these communal houses got better treatment than they ever could have gotten from the state or welfare or Social Security, because not only were they housed and fed, they were also loved. All of a sudden they had this family — the old people were revered in Peoples Temple.
MG Would you say those two components — racial integration and property held in common — were the cornerstone of his preaching?
SN I think they were a big part, but it was also more than just racial integration. There was a sense that "we have this power that none of us has as individuals." This was a time when a lot of people were smoking dope and dropping out, but Peoples Temple members were active. They saw themselves as activists; they saw themselves changing the world with the church as a tool.
MG In 1971 Richard Hongisto was elected sheriff of San Francisco, and it was a very liberal campaign. [George] Moscone was elected mayor in ’75, and we know Peoples Temple played a part in that. Hongisto's election was an early sign of growing liberal strength in San Francisco, enough so that you can look at the Moscone victory and not simply say, "Peoples Temple caused this to happen." But there's no question given how close the election was that they played a major role. How do you see their political impact then?
SN Peoples Temple was part of the mainstream politics of the Bay Area. I'm from New York. I had no idea that Jim Jones was head of the Housing Commission in San Francisco or that politicians came to Peoples Temple events and gave incredible speeches praising Jim Jones. That was something I discovered while making the film.
It's part of the history of Peoples Temple, but it was also like a birthday cake–times-12 to the politicians. The politicians didn't look too far behind this gift horse, because [Peoples Temple] was highly organized. People did what Jim Jones said. At one point they had 13 buses. They'd fill up the buses and —
MG — a politician could have an instant press conference.
SN Just one phone call and Jim Jones could come with buses. You'd have 500 people at your march.
MG Do you get a sense that what happened in Jonestown reverberates politically today? The players then aren't necessarily in politics. Jackie Speier still is, but Moscone, Willie Brown, and others are not holding political office. Still, do you see any aftereffects?
SN I'm not sure on a local level, but one thing I think it did was help kill the idea of communes in this country [at a time] when there was a strong movement saying, "Let's live together; let's live on the land; let's pool our resources." All of a sudden that was associated with "look at what happened in Guyana."
MG As I understand it, there are about five survivors who were there when the massacre took place.
SN There were about five people actually there [who survived], and of those, there are, to my knowledge, three left alive. Two of them are in the film.
MG People closely associated with Peoples Temple spoke to you and revealed some, I would think, very difficult, personal stories about sexual assault or the use of authority to express dominance. Was it difficult to get people to talk honestly?
SN It was surprisingly easy for us to get people to talk honestly. Time has passed. Partly because of a play [Berkeley Rep's The People's Temple] that was produced here in the Bay Area, I think people understood that maybe we were ready to hear a different version of the story that was much deeper.
MG In the film you see that Jones is abusing prescription drugs and probably has a mounting paranoia that's associated with some mental condition. Is there a sense that he changed while he was in San Francisco, or was Peoples Temple headed toward this sort of cultlike finality from its inception?
SN We interviewed people who knew Jim Jones when he was a kid, and they talk about the fact that he was not normal even as a six- or seven-year-old boy. But I think that his behavior did get more extreme as time went on. He had this incredible power within the church, and he was this warped individual, and the combination affected his behavior. In the end, when they [Peoples Temple members] are isolated in the jungle, that's [a reflection of] who he is.
MG Tell me about the wealth of material you have. There is film footage of a healing that is rather dramatic and recordings of his various sermons.
SN Going in, I had no idea that there was so much film footage. But we found a guy in LA who had shot in Peoples Temple over two days using three cameras and 16-millimeter film and had lit the whole church. His footage is just incredibly beautiful. The healing service, Jim Jones preaching, and the congregation singing and dancing are all part of that. He'd sold off bits and pieces to places like NBC, but we came along at a time when he felt that the film he wanted to make would never get made, so he agreed to sell us some footage.
We found members of Peoples Temple who had footage that had never been seen before. There are actually shots from the plane of them going down [to Guyana] — you can hear Jim Jones describing what he's going to do — and shots of Jones cutting through the jungle with machetes.
Also, we were working very closely with the California Historical Society library, which has a Peoples Temple collection.
MG There was a recent book [Dear People: Remembering Jonestown] that compiled some of that material.
SN Also, Jim Jones recorded himself and his sermons at Peoples Temple. They actually audio-recorded the night of the suicides. As the people are dying, Jim Jones is encouraging them to drink the poison. There are audiotapes of the children and the women and men screaming and dying.
MG As a filmmaker going into a project like this, are you trying to present the truth? Are you trying to present an alternative reading of what happened? Are you trying to warn people?
SN I'm not trying to warn people or tell an alternative history, although obviously what we did turns out to be an alternative history. I was just trying to tell this incredible story and tell it with as much honesty as I can. Everybody in the film had a part to play in Peoples Temple. We really wanted it to be a film told in the voices of the people who lived through it.
MG In my notes I have a reference to the various CIA-related theories [about what happened in Guyana]. You don't pick that up in the film, and I wonder if you might say something about that.
SN There are different theories that Jim Jones was a CIA agent and this was all a scary mind-control experiment. You know, we found nothing to back that up, and it just didn't make sense for us to go down that road.
MG As I understand it, a lot of these theories stem from [the fact] that the government withheld documents related to Jonestown. I guess Congressman [Leo] Ryan had a bill pending, the Hughes-Ryan amendment, that would have required that CIA covert operations be disclosed to Congress before those operations could be engaged in. You didn't find anything related to that?
SN No, we didn't find any hard evidence. I'm trying to operate as a filmmaker and also as a journalist.
MG So you had access to material —
SN — and we just didn't find it [evidence].
MG I'd be interested in seeing what the original accounts were like in the local press in San Francisco during the time of Guyana and the Milk-Moscone murders. There was probably a sense of how Moscone's opponents might use his ties to the Peoples Temple for political purposes.
SN One reason for the article in [the magazine] New West that first exposed Jim Jones and called for an investigation of Peoples Temple was to discredit Moscone. Part of the media follow-up was that "here is someone that Moscone supported." So that was already happening around a year before the deaths in Guyana.
MG There are folks who find objectionable the idea of referring to the deaths as mass suicides. Did you reach a conclusion about that?
SN The film has no narration, so we didn't refer to that other than in a title card at the end that I think calls it the largest mass murder-suicide in history. It's impossible to say exactly what went on that day, but it is very clear that the kids — something like 250 people who were under 18 — were all murdered.
It was something we struggled with: "What do we call it: suicide or murder?" I think by the end of the film you feel that it's kind of both at the same time.
MG If Jim Jones had died in Guyana prior to Ryan's visit, is your sense in talking to the survivors or those associated with the church that this is a project that would have sustained itself?
SN I just don't know.
MG You don't want to engage in a bit of speculative history?
SN I think they had a real problem in sustaining themselves. They were growing food, but they were bringing in food too. Financially there was a burden.
One fascinating thing about that day is that there weren't a lot of people who left with Congressman Ryan — less than 20 people. It was more Jim Jones's insanity, him thinking that 20 people leaving is devastating [that led to the massacre].
MG Other than the sermons, are there other records of his thoughts? Are there tracts and manifestos?
SN There are some things that he wrote. He didn't write a definitive book of his philosophies, but there is a piece in which he picks apart fallacies in the Bible.
MG On the one hand, Jones could be critical of the contradictions in the Bible, and on the other, he could pick out the parts that were useful to him.
SN One thing that everybody said was that Jim Jones knew the Bible — he wasn't just talking off of the top of his head. He was incredibly smart, prepared, and cunning.
MG What did you learn from making the film?
SN It's a film I'm glad to be finished with. All films are hard to make, but it really took a lot out of me. We've only had two screenings, and both times afterward there was a kind of shocked silence. One was for the members of Peoples Temple and their friends to let them be the first to see it.
MG How it was received?
SN The Peoples Temple members loved the film. We screened the film in a small theater, and we had a reception outside. The Peoples Temple members who were there with their families just stayed in the theater for about 15 minutes talking among themselves. It made me a little nervous [laughs]. But when they came out they all said they loved the film and felt it was a powerful way of telling their story — a story that hadn't been told that way at all.