The end of it all is steeped in American lore: In 1978, more than 900 members of Peoples Temple committed mass suicide under instructions from their preacher Jim Jones. However, the road that led up to this horrific event is not so well known. Founded in the mid-1950's, Peoples Temple traversed the country before fleeing an increasingly skeptical American public to South America. It was a church where thousands found love and acceptance, as well as a welcoming, progressive environment that seemed to contrast sharply with the divisions threatening society at the time. In Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, director Stanley Nelson deploys an impressive collection of audio and video footage (including never-before-seen clips and present-day interviews) that evokes the true flavor of Peoples Temple. The film shows how Jones worked the believers into delirium, and isolated Peoples Temple in a vacuum of paranoia and suspicion before giving his followers his final, deadly orders. For decades, people have tried to understand just what could make hundreds of ordinary, rational people walk down a path towards insanity and suicide. Nelson, by using Jones' own sermons along with footage shot on the actual day of the largest mass suicide in modern history, seeks to clarify that mystery. Jonestown recreates every step of their tragic downfall.
Stanley Nelson, a 2002 MacArthur Fellow, is best known for his award-winning historical documentaries that illuminate critical but overlooked history. For his 2003 film The Murder of Emmett Till, which was broadcast nationally on PBS's American Experience, Nelson won various awards, including the Primetime Emmy™ for Best Directing for Nonfiction, the Special Jury Prize at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival, an International Documentary Association award, and the George Foster Peabody award. His 2004 film A Place of Our Own, a semiautobiographical look at the African-American middle class, was screened at the Sundance Film Festival and on PBS's Independent Lens. In 2005, PBS's American Masters debuted Sweet Honey in the Rock: Raise Your Voice, a top-selling concert film. Nelson is also the executive producer of Firelight Media, a nonprofit documentary production company dedicated to giving a voice to people and issues that are marginalized in popular culture.