Stan Nelson's chilling account of the rise and fall of the Reverend Jim Jones' People's Temple combines archival footage and interviews with journalists, former members, relatives and survivors of the mass suicide of some 900 men, women and children on November 18, 1978. Their recollections, which chronicle a utopian dream rooted in faith and progressive social ideals that went as wrong as wrong can go, is simply devastating. Born in Indiana in 1931, James Jones grew up with little supervision, the son of an unemployed alcoholic and his overwhelmed wife. Jones took refuge in the Pentecostal church, eventually becoming a preacher himself. He founded an integrated congregation in Indianapolis and railed against racism and economic injustice; he and his wife adopted three children of color. In 1965, Jones moved his flock to Ukiah, in Northen California, and their numbers grew steadily throughout the 1960s. His People's Temple attracted elderly African-Americans and disaffected white youth in equal number; it ran senior homes and offered work, medical treatment and a sense of belonging. "Nobody joins a cult," says former member Deborah Layton, who survived to write a book about her experiences as one of Jones' inner circle. "You join a religious organization, you join a political movement, you join with people you really like." In 1974, Jones moved his followers to San Francisco and became involved in politics, helping elect Mayor George Moscone in 1976. But his church was taking a disturbing turn; Jones faked faith healings, preached celibacy while preying sexually on congregants, enforced discipline through public humiliation and beatings and encouraged an atmosphere of secrecy, blind obedience and paranoia. Members began defecting and shortly before the publication of an enormously critical magazine article, Jones moved the true believers to a parcel of land in the Guyanese jungle. They built a compound called Jonestown, while the relatives and friends who were left behind mobilized, writing letters denouncing Jones and his increasingly apocalyptic teachings. Their campaign attracted the attention of Congressman Leo Ryan of San Mateo County, and his fact-finding visit precipitated the final chapter of the story; after Ryan's group found evidence that some members were being held against their will, loyalists killed Ryan, three journalists and one defector. Jones then told his flock it was time to die. Nelson's film eschews sensationalism, and knowing how the story ends in no way diminishes its visceral impact.
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