I’ve been thinking about this documentary – Jonestown: Terror in the Jungle – ever since I saw it a couple of weeks ago. Some images just got stuck in my mind. Writing about it seemed like a natural thing to do, but I guess it took some time to digest it and today, while listening to The Brian Jonestown Massacre, it clicked. I was made aware of Jim Jones and The People’s Temple because of this band. The name sounded odd, so I went looking for the origin and found the history of the Guyana Massacre. But, to be fare, I’ll have to mention the thing that first led me to Anton Newcombe (the creative mind behind The Brian Jonestown Massacre) and that was Dig!, a documentary by Ondi Timoner.
So today, as I was listening to BJM’s music I found myself in a spiral of references and thinking about photography students I’m in contact with and how their overall lack of visual references plays a big part in their overall lack of… joy. I’ve been showing Ondi Timoner’s documentaries in classes since I started teaching, particularly We live in public and somehow today I found myself connecting the dots between these two works: We live in public and Jonestown: Terror in the Jungle. At first sight, there’s nothing similar between the two, but it doesn’t take much of an insight to understand where I’m coming from.
Timoner’s We Live in Public follows Josh Harris, visionary and internet pioneer, as he dives into a virtual experience in an underground bunker in NYC where 100 people lived together on camera for 30 days over the millennium, predicting an era that (as we speak) turned out to be pretty much like that: social media taking over people’s lives, reality shows taking over tv, words like “privacy” and “intimacy” gaining new and various meanings, the overload of images desensitizing our understanding of violence, etc. Some of what comes out of this documentary had been well documented before by those concerned with human behavior. We know that living in enclosed environments or deprived situations propelles drama. Our rational, our senses, our bodies crave for stimuli and soon people in such conditions will provide the necessary stimuli to feel more alive. Without the constrains of the social contract, our sense of what is and is not plausible and pleasurable can rapidly change. Violent and extreme behaviors arise, bonds break, boundaries disappear. If you’ve been in deprived environments or situations, you’ll know that to be surprisingly true. Everything that is too much out of one’s ordinary life can promote extreme reactions. Changes in sound, landscape, temperature, eating habits, social environments… these changes can easily be experienced like we’re on a high, prompting hallucinations, weakness, euphoria, etc. Extreme experiences also feed on themselves. They can rapidly turn into the new normal, creating a schism with what was previously known as “reality”. Also, because our political self is a social enterprise, being “trapped” into extreme social environments will make you do surprising things. As we all know, the acting of the other will reflect on us and thus our narrative changes.
Jonestown: Terror in the Jungle is a two part documentary produced by BBC4. Full length almost 3 hours. It’s as violent as can be, though my conception of violence may not equate yours. Anyway, bare in mind that if you’re going to watch this you should be prepared to have your stomach punched. Some years ago I’d seen one other documentary about this episode in history, namely Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, but Terror in the Jungle is just something else. Not only does it document how Jones turned out to be the psychopath that the world came to know has Reverend Jim Jones, but it also gives voice to the 17 who survived the massacre. Two of those survivors were the killer’s son and hearing their account of their lives is puzzling. My impetus to judge kept being put in question and I think that’s the main lesson from it all. It’s difficult not to judge the people who witnessed it all, but it’s also a unique lesson in history to have so many records to attest for how People’s Temple evolved and crashed into the Guyana Massacre, where more than 900 people were murdered under the slogan of “revolutionary suicide”.
As all psychopaths whose lives we somehow know of, Jim Jones was a performer who loved the public’s attention. They feed on their praise and dependence of then. Again, as all psychopaths, Jim Jones was a narcissist and much of what makes this documentary so special is a consequence of that. Loving the public arena, Jones made sure he left his mark on this world, producing recordings of all sorts. I found the audio recording the most creepy, probably because they remind me of speeches given and recorded by assassins like Hitler. At a distance, hearing the voice of this lunatic, sooo very high on drugs, accentuates the impetus to judge those who “handed him” their lives, but the survivors make an effort to explain how it all happened. The complexity of it is very enlightening in regards to the world we live in. Jones was a psychopath who used fear to control those who made his story possible. They are victims, of course. Saying “it was their choice” was never an option.
Stephan, Jim Jones’ son who was 19 at the time, says the warning signs that went unnoticed at Jonestown can be seen in the world today. He says that to understand how a thing like that can happen, you have to do what leaders like Jim Jones and his successors don’t want us to do – to read.
Talking to Stephen Jones, one of the survivors and also one of Jones’ sons, Moran Sharir asks him if at some point he felt that his dad had “lost touch with reality” and his answer replicates what the documentary makes clear for us: that Jim Jones was always stimulated by other’s people adoration of him and thus trying to manage that perception. In the son’s words: “I don’t think he went from being an altruistic, selfless, humble man to what he became.” This interview addresses many interesting issues, one of them being what I’d say is the million dollar question: why didn’t someone take him out? Stephen Jones concludes the interview with an insightful answer:
Be aware of this message that was prevalent in the temple: ‘The end justifies the means.’ And I see that throughout society. I see it in politics, I see it in advertising, I see it in a variety of places, and I feel there’s no more pernicious or toxic belief than that. I would argue that the means justify the end, but not the other way around.