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'Jonestown': Portrait of a Disturbed Cult Leader

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'Jonestown': Portrait of a Disturbed Cult Leader

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'Jonestown': Portrait of a Disturbed Cult Leader

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.

It was almost 30 years ago that hundreds of people followed a charismatic minister named Jim Jones into the jungles of Guyana. At a settlement there called Jonestown they eventually committed what is still regarded as the largest mass suicide in modern history. A day later, disbelieving reporters detailed the carnage.

(Soundbite of broadcast)

Unidentified Man (Reporter): And there were mounds of people and as we pulled up the surface cover we found more and more people under the mounds.

CHADWICK: But before this grizzly end, Jonestown residents were part of a vibrant church called the People's Temple. Now a new documentary revisits the story of what happened and why.

NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates has this report.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: The sounds of the last moments at Jonestown are still chilling.

(Soundbite of recording)

Rev. JIM JONES: Mothers, please, please. Don't do that. Don't do that.

(Soundbite of women screaming)

BATES: That's the Reverend Jim Jones attempting to calm women whose young children were being taken from them so they could be given sips of poison Kool-Aid. They were too young to hold the cups themselves. Over 80 people survived the mass suicide. Stanley Clayton escaped before drinking from the poison cup, but in the new documentary, Jonestown: The Life and Death of the People's Temple, Clayton recalls what happened to those who didn't.

Mr. STANLEY CLAYTON (Escaped Jonestown): There was a young kid, his name was Thurman. When he came inside he bumped into me. At that same time he was falling to the ground and he was going into convulsions.

(Soundbite of recording)

Rev. JONES: Hurry, hurry, my children, hurry. (Unintelligible) fall into the hands of the enemy. Hurry, my children. Hurry.

Mr. CLAYTON: I grabbed the kid from the shoulders up. In that process of taking him out of the pavilion, this kid died in my arms. I mean, I just felt the life go out of it. To me - at that point, I knew that this was real.

BATES: But it seemed very unreal to Stanley Nelson, the film's director. Like a lot of Americans, when he heard of the Jonestown deaths, Nelson - then in his 20s - shrugged them off as strange California cultishness.

Mr. STANLEY NELSON (Director, Jonestown: Life and Death of the People's Temple): Growing up in New York, I just knew what most people in the country knew, that, you know, these crazy people had followed this madman to Guyana and killed themselves.

BATES: Then, in 2003, Nelson heard a radio interview with some Jonestown survivors.

Mr. NELSON: And what they talked about was so different. You know, they talked about the social activism of People's Temple. They talked about their love for other temple members. And that was entirely new for me.

BATES: Nelson's curiosity was piqued. The discrepancy between the jungle deaths and what he'd heard on the radio was too great. He decided to do some digging into existing archives. Then he began to look up the relatives of former People's Temple members and finally Jonestown survivors. Many spoke to him for the first time. Those conversations eventually became his Jonestown documentary.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman #1: Every single person felt that they had a purpose there and that they were exceptionally special, and that is how he brought so many young college kids in, so many older black women in, so many people from diverse backgrounds who realized that there was something bigger than themselves that they needed to be involved in and that Jim Jones offered that.

BATES: Former temple members like Deborah Layton say that the church's social activism drew in many, as did his message of universal welcome. In this predominately black church headed by a white minister, race was insignificant, class was insignificant. What mattered was a kind of apostolic social justice Jim Jones was preaching.

(Soundbite of recording)

Rev. JONES: I represent total equality, a society where people own all things in common, where there are no races. Wherever there's people struggling for justice and righteousness, there I am, and there I am involved.

BATES: Director Stanley Nelson.

Mr. NELSON: There were older people who were drawn to him because he promised them, you know, give me your pension check, give me your Social Security, your welfare check, whatever, and I will take care of you in a better style than anybody else could. And he delivered on that.

(Soundbite of recording)

Mr. JONES: You've got nothing to lose. Who else is going to stand and look you in the face and say, come and I'll give you jobs? Come, and I'll give you a home. Come, and I'll give you a bed. I've got nothing but a pension. Leave your pension behind. Who else will tell you that?

BATES: In the documentary, Jones's adopted son, Jim Jones, Jr., warns viewers that his father's charisma was double-edged.

Mr. JIM JONES, JR. (Son of Jim Jones): I think in everything that I tell you about Jim Jones, there's going to be a paradox. Having this vision to change the world but having this whole undercurrent of dysfunction that was underneath that vision.

BATES: Jim, Jr. and two of his brothers were in Guyana's capital with about 80 other Jonestown members when the suicides occurred. Among those who took the poison were Jim, Jr.'s pregnant bride and more than two dozen of his relatives. In our studios, he told us that it's taken about three decades to heal the wounds. Stanley Nelson's film, he says, is an important part of that process.

Mr. JONES, Jr.: We all know the what and when. I think what this movie really provides is a why.

BATES: For his part, Stanley Nelson doesn't want Jonestown to dissolve into a slangy catch phrase.

Mr. NELSON: One of the things that's been really incredible is that we found that there's a lot of younger people who don't know anything about Jonestown, but they know the phrase, drink the Kool-Aid, but they don't know where it comes from.

BATES: After today, they will. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News, Los Angeles.

(Soundbite of music)

CHADWICK: Jonestown: The Life and Death of the People's Temple opens in New York today and in theaters around the country soon after.

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