Friday, September 6, 2013

THE SACRAMENT: Flashback to Jonestown, Part II

Jim Jones and members of the the Peoples Temple

As a means to understand the real-life tragedy that inspired Ti West's new film, The Sacrament (screening at this year's Festival) we take a closer look at the events at Jonestown in 1978. This is the second and last installment in the series. You can read Part I here.

It wasn't just the outsiders that seemed to have it in for Jones and his followers, it was also several former members, under the umbrella of a group called the Concerned Relatives, who painted the Peoples Temple as a cult who brainwashed and abused people. Around this time, Jones, whose role in the management of the Peoples Temple had diminished, began to become more and more paranoid and delusional as well as heavily addicted to drugs.

In 1978, Congressman Leo Ryan became emotionally invested in the bitter, protracted custody case of John Victor Stoen, the child of two former members of the Peoples Temple. (To complicate things further, Jones claimed to be the biological father of the child.) Ryan received permission from the State Department in November of that year to visit Jonestown as part of his "official oversight plans for the year," along with members of the media and the Concerned Relatives.

Photo of the visitors to Jonestown at Port Kaituma
on November 17, 1978 taken by Leo Ryan
The visit was tense, but overall, Ryan felt that Jonestown was not holding people against their will and said he'd report as much when he went home. In fact, during the short visit (which lasted less than 48 hours), several people expressed their desire to leave the compound and return to the United States with Ryan and his entourage. One of these people was Larry Layton.

At the Port Kaituma airstrip, the members of the visiting party and the soon-to-be-former members of the Peoples Temple were boarding planes at the airstrip, when Layton took out a gun and started firing. At that same moment, a truck full of members of the Temple's security force—The Red Brigade—pulled up and also opened fire. Congressman Ryan, a reporter named Don Harris, NBC cameraman Bob Brown, Examiner photographer Greg Robinson, and Temple member Patricia Parks were all killed, while ten others were wounded.

That night, Jones responded by staging a mass suicide, only instead of the mass suicide practice drills he'd been ordering at random intervals throughout the previous months, this time the fruit punch was lethal: laced with cyanide and tranquillizers. According to his last recorded messages and the testimony of members of the Temple who escaped, Jones ordered the hit at the airstrip so he could carry out his plan of mass suicide. In an even more tragic twist, the children were ordered to drink the punch before their parents.

Jim Jones and children from the Peoples Temple in happier times.
For some insight into Jim Jones and what went so wrong, check out this interview with Jim Rieterman, a journalist who was present during the events of November 1978.

A more detailed account of the events leading up to the founding of the Peoples Temple and the events at Jonestown--and my major source for this post--can be found in Dr. John Walliss's article on the San Diego State University's website, which has many resources for learning more about Jonestown.

THE SACRAMENT Screening Times:
Sunday, Sept 8th, 5:15 PM THE BLOOR HOT DOCS CINEMA
Tuesday, Sept 10th, 9:45 PM SCOTIABANK 7
Friday, Sept 13th, 8:45 PM SCOTIABANK 3

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