2007 / Director Tim Wolochatiuk.
Review by Glenn Cochrane.
Anyone with a basic knowledge of modern history will know the story of Jonestown and the mass murder-suicide of 909 people at the People’s Temple, orchestrated by the reverend Jim Jones. It is a tragic story that has scorched nightmarish images into the public consciousness and influences pop culture (does “don’t drink the cool-aid” sound familiar?). Several films and media spotlights have covered the story over the years, and Ti West & Eli Roth recently presented a fictionalised account of the events with their film THE SACRAMENT.
Of all the films I have seen about the incident JONESTOWN: PARADISE LOST is the most chilling. In fact it’s one of the most numbing documentaries I have seen in a long time. The massacre occurred in 1978 and with thirty years of extensive coverage already on record, the film takes a new approach by presenting a combination of talking head narratives, actual video footage and elaborate recreations… a similar method to the film TOUCHING THE VOID. The result is a polarizing and extraordinary document that puts the viewer at the centre of it all alongside Jim Jones, his followers and the outsiders who came to investigate the compound.
Director Tim Wolochatiuk has pieced together an amazing production. The reconstruction of the cult’s compound is insanely good. Set amongst the jungles of Guyana, the location has been recreated with a fine eye and lends the documentary a very real and highly credible power. With personal testimony from three of the survivors, combined with polarizing performances form the actors, the result is an uncompromising and painfully personal account of a very dark moment in history.
The talking head subjects include Stephan Jones (son of Jim Jones), Vernon Gosney (survivor) and Tim Reiterman (journalist who narrowly escaped murder) and their testimonies are astonishing. It’s hard to listen to their recollections without the hairs on your neck pricking up. They all witnessed the unimaginable and their stories are very hard to stomach. Through their experiences we get a better understanding of the mental state and psychology of Jim Jones, as well as the controlling nature of the cult.
The recreations are superb too, and these portions of the story illustrate and compliment the first-hand accounts being told by the real life counterparts. Actor Rick Roberts plays Jim Jones and while his physical resemblance isn’t as accurate as it could be, his demeanour and screen presence is commanding. It’s a stellar performance that amplifies the first hand narratives and leaves a haunting impression on the viewer.
The use of real footage, first-hand testimony and accurate recreations makes JONESTOWN: PARADISE LOST and exceptional demonstration of documentary filmmaking that future filmmakers should take note of. It is a fascinating, compelling and fucking terrifying film.