Sunday, June 16, 2024

Cult Massacre: One Day in Jonestown, on Hulu

Jim Jones was a lot like Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot, because he too was a socialist mass murderer. The deaths at Jonestown are now considered mass murder rather than mass suicide, because nobody had a real choice in the matter. Jones was also explicitly a communitarian socialist. In fact, Jonestown was conceived as a collective commune that tragically ended as all socialist utopias do. Viewers can watch the horror unfold in previously unseen video, much of it shot by Jonestown residents for “posterity” in the three-part National Geographic-produced Cult Massacre: One Day in Jonestown, directed by Marian Mohamed, which premieres tomorrow on Hulu.

If you do not know the basic facts about the 918 Peoples Temple members forced to commit suicide in their Guyana commune, check out Shan Nicholson’s
Jonestown: Terror in the Jungle first, because it much more forthrightly addresses Jim Jones’ ideology. Of course, both programs gloss over the extent to which the late San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk allied themselves with Jones’ Peoples Temple. Moscone even appointed to Jones to the San Francisco Housing Authority and supported his campaign for the chairmanship, while ignoring reports of irregularities at the Peoples Temple.

Cult Massacre captures the megalomaniacal extremism of Jones in footage he had produced, supposedly to document the development of Jonestown. (In retrospect, even the name, Jonestown, should have been a warning of the personality cult’s toxicity, much like the renaming of Volgograd to Stalingrad.) In any event, his voice and vocal cadences sound truly creepy.

Cult Massacre
also features interviews with several survivors and notable witnesses, including Jones’s son Stephan. In addition to enduring the abuse and constant exhaustion of life at Jonestown, for years the surviving Jonestown residents had to carry the stigma of being cult members.

We also hear from now-former Rep. Jackie Speiers, who accompanied her late boss Rep. Leo Ryan on his fatal fact-finding mission to Jonestown. Yet, some of the most illuminating commentary comes from Special Ops AF Sgt David Netterville, who was part of the operation retrieving and repatriating the bodies, and Douglas Ellice, a consular officer at the U.S. Embassy. At the time, Guyana was a socialist nation on better terms with the Soviets (that is precisely Jones chose to relocate there), which must have made the aftermath even more difficult to manage.

What happened in Jonestown is a terrifying example of what can happen when people are blinded by ideology and/or submit to a personality cult. The fact that Jim Jones was an ardent socialist is not besides the point. Socialism has consistently produced nothing but suffering and horror—that is why nations like Sweden deliberately turned against socialism in the mid-1970s (indeed, most Scandinavian countries are now more capitalistic than the U.S.—google it if you doubt it).

Cult Massacre
gives a frighteningly compelling step-by-step chronicle of the descent into madness, but struggles with the underlying causes. It is often unnerving, but it still somewhat sanitizes the full story. Recommended for the perspectives of Ellice and Netterville (which need to be heard), Cult Massacre starts streaming tomorrow (6/17) on Hulu (and it airs 8/14 on the Nat Geo channel).