21 August 2007

Pure, teeth-clenching evil

I cried tonight. Not just a tear or two, but a full-blown Niagara Falls of tears.

I wasn't sobbing. I haven't done that for years, but my cheeks are still wet as I type, and I feel like if I go to bed right now, I'm going to have nightmares.

So I'm going to blog about it.

SBS has rapidly become my favourite Australian free-to-air TV network. The show a series called Hot Docs where they put up a different documentary each week, and tonight, it was Jonestown: The Life And Death Of People's Temple.

This documentary is not for the faint of heart. Here's the blurb for the show, courtesy of SBS' website:

Neighbours recall a kid from the wrong side of the tracks who, on the one hand, was fervently committed to social justice but, on the other, was wont to stab cats to death before solemnly burying them. Jones founded an interracial ministry in 1961 in Indianapolis. In exchange for a 20% tithe, which eventually evolved into the surrender of all of one's possessions, members were assured of clothing, food, shelter and care. In 1971, Jones moved to San Francisco, where his followers grew into a force for political activism. Two of the few survivors of the enforced drinking of cyanide-laced Kool-Aid recount those events, discreetly accompanied by photographs of the sprawled bodies of more than 900 victims. (From the US, in English) (Documentary) M (A,L) CC WS

Now that's pretty accurate. But it assumes that viewers already know how the story pans out. I know how the story pans out, but SBS' blurb contains some gaps, which I'll fill in for you.

The Rev. Jim Jones (pictured) was regarded as a weird kid. He did indeed stab cats and conduct funerals for them. And when he grew up, he became the pastor of a church.

He embraced pentecostal Christianity, which at that stage would have been a fringe movement - remember this was in the sixties.

And it is also worth remembering that he was more than happy to conduct services with congregations of mixed races. This was not popular in Indianapolis where the first of his "Peoples' Temples" were opened for business, but appears to be the norm for the Disciples of Christ church, into whom he was ordained.

He must have been copping some heat in Indiana, because the next thing that happens is that the whole church uprooted itself and moved to California. We're not just talking the pastor himself, we're talking the entire congregation.

Although fleeing persecution appears to be the motivation here, this is the first hint that we have a cult that is a little out there on our hands.

The first of the church's little agricultural communities is set up here in California, and it's gradually looking more and more life-occupying for some. We hear reports about people working 20 hour days for the church, and wearing it like a badge of honour.

It's at this point, too, where Jones suggests to his followers that why should they bother tithing, when they could turn the whole church community into a commune?

As you do.

Jones and his followers appear to have an enormous amount of fun in their church services, and Jones himself is lauded as a great civil rights pioneer. Indeed his work in uniting black and white America seems to have hit a purple patch in the late sixties and early seventies, and not only that, hot on the heels of the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, he appears to have gained traction where it took their deaths to do so.

Loads of video of Jones and his congregation abound, and throughout the whole thing, Jones appears like a smiling good guy.

Indeed, he's heard to compare himself to King and X later in the doco. Which is well after the point where he proclaims himself a bit of a messiah, or even a God-like figure.

Anyway, he's already got weird shit happening, his congregation is growing at an unsustainable rate, and he uproots suddenly with his by now megachurch-sized congregation and moves again. To Guyana.

He's clearly drug-addicted and ferociously paranoid by this point in time, and it appears that even though life in Jonestown, Guyana is alright for some, others want out, and Jones makes things difficult for them.

Jones is broadcasting day and night out of loudspeakers Pol Pot style, and even has taken a liking to the kind of safari suit favoured by Kim Jong-Il.

Anyway, the whole thing culminates in the suicide, and get this:

The whole thing was actually audio taped as Jones invites, first the children, and then the adults up to drink the Kool-Aid. This sequence builds and builds, until we're left with a scene of bodies everywhere.

How the fuckity fuck fuck fucky did 909 people willingly suicide in this fashion?

It seems willing mostly, from the doco, although some mention is made of the armed security guards.

I'm so fucking angry after seeing this. If Richard Dawkins' Root of all Evil documentary series isn't the final nail in the coffin of religious idiots everywhere then this documentary should do the job comprehensively. This is absolutely harrowing viewing.

5 of the biggest stars that you can find. And do not watch this documentary late at night on your own. You have been warned.


Greg said...


Saw the ads, thought "yes, this will be interesting". Read the review in The Age and thought "Wow, mandatory viewing".

Instead, I got distracted.

Bugger. Now I can't seem to find a torrent for it either :-(

Dikkii said...

Shame you missed it, Greg.

I'm sure it's on DVD somewhere - it's well worth buying even if the last part of it is incredibly heavy shit.

Anonymous said...

You are so full of shit! Mary Kostakidis has gone, SBS will never be the same. Boo hoo. :-)

Dikkii said...

Ahh. Mary K. She will be missed.

Greg said...

Uh oh ... completely off-topic SBS rant coming on:

Mary Kostakidis was employed to read out the news. She didn't like the strategic direction the organisation was taking, so it wasn't as nice for her at work any more. So she stopped turning up. This is (most likely) in breach of her contract. Now she's hired a QC.

This bullshit about being "primary reader" and having "editorial input" is crap. She's a news presenter, not a producer or editor. She may have been a journalist once (not sure), but if she wants to dictate the content, she should resign and apply for a job as a producer, executive or get on the board.

Just because she's popular and comfortable in her established role doesn't mean she should be able drive the whole organisation.

The only leeway she should have is during the interviews (to an extent) and the in-between banter.

Worry about strategic matters that don't concern her mean she's dropped the ball on these core responsibilities. Her explanation for the red-knickers-on-tennis-player story that "it must be her time of the month" tells you all you need to know about where her head is at.

(Imagine the outcry if a Today Tonight (ahem) "journalist" had made that remark!)

No, things have gotten way too cosy over at SBS and the tail is wagging the dog. It's not the "Mary Kostakidis tells us what she feels likes show" - it's an important part of our civil society and the organisation as a whole determines the content. For better or worse.

Phew. Thanks for that. Now I'll get back to watching it.

Dikkii said...

That adds a different slant on things.

I must admit, I'd like to find out what's said in court about her contract.

I give her 6 months before she sells her soul to one of the commercial networks.

Greg said...

You're right; it's best to wait and see what her contract actually states before sounding off.

(I'll hold my "I can't believe SBS management signed that contract!" rant in reserve, if it turns out she legally does get to determine the content!)

As my GF puts it: it's just another pet peeve in the menagerie.

Dikkii said...

Apparently Ian Henderson gets quite a lot of say over what he reads out, but I have no evidence that supports this.

I suspect that it's more common than what we think.

KitKat said...

Um, sorry if I don't comment on the SBS thing...

But your diatribe got me thinking, Dikkii. I didn't see the documentary, and probably would have found it harrowing. The first thing I didn't understand, was how could the parents of the children stand by and let them drink poison? And then do it themselves? Armed guards or no armed guards, how does someone (Jones) brainwash a parent to the point of them standing by to watch their children die? As you succinctly put it Dikkii, how the fuckity fuck fuck fucky could they be influenced to this level?

It got me thinking about suicide and the state of suicidal people's minds. Many are suffering some form of mental illness.

Will we get to a point where we will be able to diagnose fundamental or fanatical religious adherence as a type of mental illness?

After all, it does all start with an imaginary friend.

Dikkii said...

Kitkat, we're already part of the way there.

There's already a reasonable body of science on hysteria and mass hypnosis, which I imagine would be kinda considered mental afflictions of sorts. Probably not illnesses, though - more "conditions".

Liked your quip about the imaginary friend.