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The Jonestown Massacre took place on Nov. 18, 1978. Over 900 members of the Peoples Temple, who had relocated from San Francisco to an isolated village in Guyana, killed themselves by drinking cyanide-laced Flavor-aid (a drink akin to Kool-aid). Among them was their leader, Jim Jones. The event has largely faded from our cultural memory, leaving only a few bad jokes and a well-worn phrase. Those who think about Jonestown at all probably see it as a fuzzy symbol of the end of the ‘70s and the hippie/Jesus movement that preceded it.

I had cause to think again about Jim Jones and the cult he led when I saw the fantastic documentary Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple. The film benefits from a tremendously evocative opening that sets the mood. While bells toll in the background, intertitles remind us of what the Peoples Temple was and what happened at Jonestown. Then we hear from surviving members of the cult (several dozen people were away from Jonestown on the fateful day, and five who were there escaped). They describe what Jim Jones was like, how he was whatever you wanted him to be: “friend, father, god.” But while we read and hear the chilling story, the footage we see on the screen is of happy young people working and worshipping together, of an inter-racial, inter-generational church coming together. The obviously joyous faces are startling, undermining what we assume we know.

The documentary goes on to describe Jones’s upbringing in a small Indiana town in the ‘30s and ‘40s, his dysfunctional family, and the community he found in a Pentecostal church. He became an itinerant preacher in his early twenties and fiercely desired to lead a racially integrated church. That didn’t go over well in Indiana, so in the mid-‘60s he packed up his thriving ministry and headed for California, where the group started a commune on a farm. In 1974, the commune moved into San Francisco and continued its politically active ministry. But Jones’s growing paranoia, fueled by a skeptical media and the accusations of those who had left the church, precipitated the move en masse to Guyana.

jonestown_05-resized.jpgBecause Peoples Temple thrived during the ‘70s, when everyone was buying home video recorders and because the news media was present at Jonestown in its last 36 hours, director Stanley Nelson has a wealth of material to choose from. To his credit, he’s assembled an absolutely compelling film. He and his brilliant editors Lewis Erskine and Aljernon Tunsil combine photos and video footage in provocative ways, helping show why people would’ve been drawn to Jim Jones and his ministry in the first place. As one interviewee points out, “Nobody joins a cult,” and the documentary does a fine job of explaining why the church was so attractive, especially in the late ’60s and ‘70s when the social landscape was changing dramatically.

Even better, though, are the contemporary interviews, as former members reflect on why they joined, what Jones was like, what Jonestown was like. Some of their recollections are almost frightening, as Jones instituted a brutally demanding schedule that left Temple members hardly any time for sleep. He used public beatings as teaching tools and, in private, sexually molested apparently dozens of members, both men and women. He rejected the Bible and set himself up as a god. Yet, his progressive politics and self-help message, resting on the foundation of a charismatic personality, drew hundreds to the church and then off to Guyana. As one former member remarked, “everything was plausible, but in retrospect everything seems bizarre.”

What’s especially fascinating is how many of the members still get emotional over 25 years later, not just because of those who died but because of the dreams they had for the community. Instead of looking at the Peoples Church as some sort of raving cult that they were lucky to escape, most of them still see it as a lost dream, an Eden destroyed. It’s a stark reminder of why cults are so attractive, of how our search for meaning can lead us into a labyrinth of deception. Yet in our culture of gross materialism and superficial lifestyles (tell me why I care about Paris Hilton again), there’s something compelling about people who truly believed they were making the world a better place.

That makes the film’s conclusion especially heartbreaking. The description of the mass suicide (including some audio recordings from that day) is set against photos taken a day later, with hundreds of bodies scattered around the compound. Nelson then segues from photos of church members to the final credit sequence. But intercut with the credits are long shots of the visibly shaken interviewees, and on the screen appears a list of the relatives they lost. My eyes are tearing up six weeks later just thinking about it. The abstract idea of Jonestown is transformed into something deeply personal and profoundly moving.

It’s not fair to expect a 85-minute documentary to answer every question, but I left the theater with more than a couple. I particularly wish the film could explain at what point the church turned into a cult. Was Jones always a megalomaniac who sexually and physically abused his parishioners, or did something happen along the way? Is this the story of a bad man finding a place where he could do the most damage or a tale of power corrupting a good man? But maybe those aren’t the right questions to ask, maybe that dichotomy is too simple an explanation. Maybe the movie is a reminder that some events are inexplicable.

Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple — four stars, out of five

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Chicago natives have another chance to see Jonestown. It opens Fri., Jan. 19 at the Gene Siskel Film Center for a one-week run. Thanks to my friend Neil for his thoughtful editing suggestions on this and several other of my reviews. All mistakes, of course, are my responsibility.