Saturday at Silverdocs

I was able to see only two movies at Silverdocs on Saturday, and both films, by coincidence, put faces on subcultures that have typically been forgotten or ignored. Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple, in particular, provides a valuable window into a history that most people have forgotten, recalling the tragic end of the story when over 900 people were killed rather than the culture that led up to it. B.I.K.E. offers a glimpse of the Black Label Bicycle Club, a group of artists and activists who form a community around the pro-bicycle movement. It’s an interesting mix of politics and playfulness as the Black Label group competes in “bicycle jousts” atop six-foot tall bicycles.

The first film, Stanley Nelson’s Jonestown: The LIfe and Death of Peoples Temple (IMDB) relates the history of Peoples Temple and its charismatic leader, Jim Jones, starting with his humble youth in Lynn, Indiana, and running through the 1960s and ’70s, when Jones developed an enthusiatsic following with his message of social justice, to the very end in Jonestown, Guyana, when Jones directed over 900 followers to commit mass suicide. Nelson, who also directed The Murder of Emmett Till, presents an amazing wealth of archival material, including footage and audio of the meeting that culminated in the mass suicides, as well as interviews with several of the survivors and former members of Jones’ church (including Jones’ adopted son, Jim, Jr). While Nelson quickly establishes that Jones’ psychological problems likely stem form childhood, he also demonstrates, through interviews and archival materials, how appealing Jones’ message of social equality and community might have been for people shaken by the Vietnam War and racial inequality. Jones’ churches are a picture of diversity, with young white college students standing next to older black families, suggesting a sense of community that might otherwise have been unavailable (see Christina Talcott’s Washington Post article for more information on Nelson’s research).

To some extent, Jones himself remains unknowable, and I’m not sure that any amount of reporting could ever determine how the church leader saw himself or his congregation, but Nelson manages to unearth footage of a healing service in which a woman confined to a wheelchair miraculously begins to walk again. The woman was later recognized to be one of Jones’ secretaries wearing heavy makeup. The film features unforgettable footage from Jones’ church in San Francisco and eventually from Guyana itself where Jones fled with members of his congregation after an article in a San Francisco newspaper began to unravel problems within Peoples Temple. Jonestown is an important story, one that needed to be told, and Nelson’s film provides valuable insight into Jones’ charismatic appeal and the church’s eventual demise in what Jones described as “revolutionary suicide.” It’s clear, of course, as one of the survivors put it that “there was nothing revolutionary about it.”

Jacob Septimus and Anthony Howard’s B.I.K.E. focuses on the tight-knit subculture of pro-bicycle activists known as the Black Label Bicycle Club. The film focuses on the New York branch of the club, which consists priamrily of artists and punks, many of whom had known each other in the graffiti culture in the city (in fact other branches in the midwest tend to be much more blue-collar). The film focuses primarily on co-director Anthony (Tony) Howard’s attempts to join Black Label and the group’s repeated decisions to reject him, in part because of Tony’s “rock star” or individualistic style (which often came across as a bizarre art-school hybrid of Tony Manero and Insane Clown Posse. In this sense, B.I.K.E. pits indvidulism against the collective ethos of the bike club, in a storyline that probably should have been a little more explicit.

While Tony is trying to get into Black Label, a long-time girlfriend enetr rehab and eventually leaves him for another guy, he develops an admiring friendship with the leader of Black Label, an artist and champion bike jouster, and ultimately he starts a rival bike group to compete with Black Label. I’ll admit to being somewhat disappointed by B.I.K.E., but that’s probably due to the fact that I was more interested in the politics of Black Label and the pro-bicicyle culture in general, and the film underplayed that element. To be fair, B.I.K.E. does explore these questions to some extent, particularly the scene in which the New York chapter of Black Label travels to the national Black Label convention in the midwest, which depictis the limits of the group’s politics, as they load their bikes into their parents’ (?) Range Rovers and Mercedes in order to travel to the competition. This scene does not suggest that their politics are insincere, I think, but that the group isn’t completely removed from the bourgeois world that they seem to reject. I’m planning to see Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos, Walking to Werner, and Road to Guantanamo today.

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