My Article for the Jonestown Institute

Here is an article I wrote last year about our film The Wild Coast: An Exploration of the Guianas for the Jonestown Institute, now known as Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & Peoples Temple, part of San Diego State University. Originally posted on this link.

Travel Documentary of Three Guianas Includes Jonestown

P1010660Together with philanthropist Richard Taylor, I recently completed an independent documentary film about the Guianas. The Wild Coast: An Exploration of the Guianas was published on my non-profit websiteearlier this year and is available for viewing there. The Jonestown Institute was gracious to allow my use of several of its previously-unseen photographs in the film.
I am a lawyer by trade, but creating run-and-gun travel-oriented documentary films is my avocation. I had always wanted to travel to the Guianas because of their unusualness. Other than Brazil, the Guianas are the only non-Spanish speaking countries in South America, and there are few tourists. Indeed, most Americans think the Guianas are in Africa.
The film’s thrust is to show the most significant places in all three of the Guianas, both geographically and historically. The first place we chose to film was Jonestown, Guyana. When we arrived, I located Mr. Fitz Duke, an Amerindian who was a witness to the Port Kaituma airstrip shooting that precipitated the Jonestown tragedy. I interviewed him about his recollections while standing in the middle of the now-paved airstrip. He told us of Patricia Parks, a Peoples Temple member who had left Jonestown with Congressman Leo Ryan on November 18, 1978, and who, like Ryan, was shot to death on the airstrip. Fitz witnessed this woman’s death – her head was nearly blown off by Temple gunmen who fired from a vehicle which had pulled up on the airstrip – and saw her brains spattered on the clothes of her daughter standing beside her. The girl fled into the woods nearby, where, after several days of crippling fear, she was found by the locals and saved. In the film, I flew an aerial drone with a camera to show the deep jungle still surrounding the airstrip. I could feel that little girl’s presence there.
Fitz later drove us out to the eerie site of Jonestown. Fitz was never a Temple member nor did he live at Jonestown, but he worked odd jobs for the Temple and met Jim Jones and many other Temple members in the 1970s. The site was difficult to get to, as it is now completely overgrown with green jungle bush. Some locals helped us hack our way in with machetes.
As we arrived, I began to remember the images of the newscasts, showing the aftermath of the mass suicide in 1978. I was only nine years old at the time, and could not then comprehend how so many could kill themselves. I have few childhood memories but this is one of them. The overused phrase, “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid” – i.e., never follow any religious fanatic blindly – became a permanent part of my vocabulary.
However, as I researched Jonestown for the film, it became apparent that in fact, what I thought I remembered about it was not entirely accurate. Religion no longer played a role in Jonestown, at least for Jim Jones. Jones had been a Christian preacher, and while many or most of his devotees were still Christian, Jim Jones himself morphed into an anti-Christian Marxist-socialist with a fixation on death. One only need listen to the horrifying FBI Death Tape Q 042 – recorded by Jones on the fateful day – to hear Jones describe himself and Jonestown in such a way. It became apparent to me, that his power over others was based, not on his newer views of nihilistic Marxist-socialism, but the ability to frame them with traditional biblical concepts of apostolic fervor that many of the Temple members still adhered to. He was able to retain so much power over so many due to his knowledge and usage of the Christian Bible mixed with ideas of Marxist-socialism.
I was also surprised to learn that it was not a mass suicide as I had always thought. Yes, many members did drink the poison voluntarily, but many, if not most, were in fact murdered, especially the 300 innocent children who still had their self-preservation instinct intact. An unknown number of adults were also murdered; those who refused to drink were injected with the drug by Jonestown’s security guards.
As part of the film, I also attended the 35th anniversary memorial at the Evergreen Cemetery in Oakland, California. The Guyana government refused to allow the burial of the Jonestown dead on site, so the US military airlifted the bodies to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. About half of the bodies – those unidentified and unclaimed after the tragedy – were transported across the country and buried at Evergreen in May 1979. I talked to several survivors during the event and made some new friends. One man I spoke to, whose name I will not mention, told me in a somber tone that Jim Jones was his father. I initially thought this was one of Jones’ biological sons, but I came to learn later he meant “father” spiritually.
I did not describe this conversation in the film. I can understand how someone could honor Jim Jones with the moniker spiritual father, but I cannot accept it. We use this term for great men like Gandhi, Rev. Martin Luther King or John Paul II, men of peace who helped all of mankind, never seeking anyone’s pain or destruction. Jones was a man who fed himself a daily cocktail of illicit mind-altering drugs, who demanded sex with anyone he wanted, who rejected his faith for Karl Marx, and who convinced so many to self-immolate and murder for the stupidest of reasons: to show the world the Jonestown revolution! But what was his revolution? A rejection of capitalism, Christianity, respect for the integral dignity of men and women? Has history granted him a role in the development of goodness and peace in the world? I would say no. The Temple members’ lives were taken and destroyed in vain.
(David Whalen’s film can also be seen at this link
Last modified on October 20th, 2014.

50,000 YouTube views

Our film The Wild West of Namibia had obtained 50,000 YouTube views and counting. Our film The Wild Coast: an exploration of the Guianas has hit 5000. We are finally seeing action on our films. It took a long time and I have no marketing plan. But somehow people are finding and enjoying them. All films together have 66,000 YouTube views. I hope by the end of the year we can hit 100,000. Thank you everyone for watching. Oh and don't forget to click on the ads since LMM earns a very tiny amount of money for this, but better than nothing.

Fifth Anniversary of Mike's (Sancho) Death

Today marks the 5th anniversary of the death of Mike Ross, deceased September 7, 2010. His obituary is here. Mike is one of the main characters in the documentary film Men of La Mancha which can be viewed here at
Artwork courtesy of Carlos Esqueda

He died while I was editing the film. Initially his role was the same as mine, to be two guys who liked to travel and enjoy a few beers, but also traveling to help others by volunteering. The film's story was inspired by the documentary television series Long Way Round, where A-list actor Ewan McGregor rode a motorcycle around the world with his good friend Charlie Boorman while filming it. Riding around the world (or at least part of it) by motorcycle had been a dream of mine. But I also had other dreams, one of which was to do some good in the world. I came up with an idea of a nonprofit company called La Mancha Media where I could go to Central America on my motorcycle to film in charities to bring their missions to light, and to tie the stories together by an overland adventure trip. I formed the company in late 2008.

Mike loved the idea to go filming on a couple of motorcycles with me, but he did not have a motorcycle and was not sure about taking that much time off (I was planning on going for several months in 2009). So I went alone. But he was on the Board of Directors of La Mancha Media and was one of the officers. 

Spoiler Alert: The following gives away much of the film Men of La Mancha. If you have not yet seen it and want to, please don't read this first.

So, at that time, the film was to be just myself on a motorcycle filming in charities. I was to be a sort of Don Quixote figure, riding alone without a Sancho Panza. However, after I filmed in a few charities, I was nearly killed on my motorcycle by a lunatic driver in Guatemala. I had been on the way to film in more charities but obviously my filming was cut short. After a week in the hospital there, I was stabilized to fly home to California to continue further medical care. I could not walk for 6 months. But during this time Mike and I started discussing a second trip to Central America, this time he would come with me in my car and it would be for 2 months or so. He had just got a new job that allowed him some down time and he was able to do some of the work from his computer. 

So after I could walk, we took off together to film in some of the same locations I had filmed on my motorcycle, and some new ones. We also brought a small trailer in order to pick up my wrecked motorcycle and bring it back to the USA, as a sort of humorous and crazy plot device. It was a very memorable trip. We bonded strongly, spending day in and day out, sharing hotel rooms, and driving in the car daily for about 10,000 miles. Of course we had our ups and downs as it would be with anyone in such proximity. 

At the time I was drinking quite a bit of beer and wine as well (which is oft portrayed in the film). I actually wanted to film this partying, so to speak, to show that the protagonists were not teetotalers but were fun loving guys drinking on the beaches of Central America and Mexico. Mike never drank as much as me. He always was able to stop after a beer or two, but I had to keep going to polish off the 6 pack or whatever it was. I could not let a good beer go to waste. I look back at this now, and I feel I was pushing him sometimes to drink more, and it worked. I feel a bit of remorse at this, since I do not drink now. I am annoyed today at people who push others to drink, it's almost as if the drinker feels insecure around others that have control, and therefore try to corrupt the person with control.

I am glad however, that those drinking scenes are in the film. God himself is the creator of alcohol and it is good. It can be a bonding experience among any two or more people. But for me it has become a vice, so I have given it up, at least for now.

This post is supposed to be about Mike, I only write about alcohol in order to, in a sense, apologize to him postmortem, for being pushy and a bad influence on him in my drinking habits.

Mike's role on the trip was to be my Sancho Panza, a sidekick. In reality he was and there was no play acting. It actually worked quite well in real life this way. He was a much plainer guy than me. He was a simple guy to my emotional complexity. He worked in mechanical things, to my wordsmithing. He was much like I imagine Sancho to be from Miguel Cervante's seminal work Don Quixote, from which the film took its inspiration.

A couple months after we returned, while I was editing the footage of the film, I got a call from a mutual friend informing me of Mike’s death by small plane accident. The next several weeks and months were very difficult for me emotionally. I was watching dozens of hours of footage of Mike, trying to edit his scenes, knowing that he just died. I was literally weeping on my keyboard as I edited. I was asked to put together a video for his memorial service at St Brigid Catholic Church in San Diego, CA where Mike volunteered much of his time. I chose all the scenes I could that showed him up close and assembled them to music. It was an emotional disaster on me doing this. Now whenever I hear the song Transatlanticism by Death Cab for Cutie I immediately think of Mike’s death. It was the song I chose to mix the footage to. 

“The rhythm of my footsteps crossing flatlands to your door have been silenced forever more.

The distance is quite simply much too far for me to row
It seems farther than ever before
Oh no..... I need you so much closer”

I felt those lyrics to mean for me that Mike was now beyond space and time but that he was needed now to be closer to us, to me, while making the film. You can watch the memorial clip below.

Mike Ross from La Mancha Media on Vimeo.

At the St Brigid memorial, Mother Antonia’s nuns, the Eudists of the 11th Hour, came out of honor for all the good Mike had done for them. He was the reason Mother Antonia was included in the film later. She passed away now about a year or so ago. I was very happy to have recorded the small scenes of her and to tell her story. Mike was a good friend of Mother Antonia and helped build the house where her nuns live in Tijuana (shown in the film).

After his death I seriously began to reflect on the story-line of Men of La Mancha. I was in the initial editing. My style of editing is to go through all the footage minute by minute and cutting way stuff that has no relevance. After I do that, I go in again and cut again and again a second and third time, until I get to just a couple hours of footage. Then I start assembling the film. I was in this stage when Mike died, just cutting away extraneous items. But after a few weeks I could see there was a new story in the footage, that of Mike’s life and ultimately his death. I decided then to go to the location of his plane crash and film it. I had read he had crashed near a beautiful river camp called the White Buffalo Resort in Baxter County, Arkansas. So I decided to camp there. I brought along our mutual friend Tom McNeill to help out filming and interviewing anyone who knew anything.

When we landed in Arkansas we picked up our rental car and started driving to the camp. But first we wanted to take a preview look at the plane's crash site if we could locate it. It was too late in the evening to explore fully, but we were in complete shock when we discovered the name of the small road near to where the plane crashed: the road's name is Don Quixote Road. I stood next to that sign and choked back tears while Tom filmed. At one point I remember saying "how could anyone ever believe God did not exist" when one is a witness to such a sign as that. I did not include that in the film because I did not want Mike or myself to show our faith directly. That was for the charities. But Mike and I both had, and still have a very strong faith. He died a faithful Catholic and I remain one to this day after having a strong conversion as a 21 year old. Seeing that sign there, in the middle of Arkansas, where all the roads leading up there were numbered, not named, it was just so odd and not random. I know that God, even if it was 2 decades ago, had some influence over the placement of that sign, knowing that I, playing Don Quixote, in a tiny indie documentary, would stumble on it, while filming the place of death of my best friend Mike Ross who was playing my Sancho in the film. That sign was the marker
Google Street View has poor image quality but the sign is clear in our film
of his death for me.

Mike's death is portrayed at the end of the film. However, I show some omens during the film which portend to his eventual demise. For example, in one of the opening scenes of the film we were joking about Mike's death. This would have never made it into the film had he not died in real life. When shooting a documentary where we were the protagonists, the method was for each of us to film the other or to put the camera on the tripod while we were doing something together, and just let it roll during the entire time. This scene of discussing his death was a throwaway scene, it was just the camera turned on capturing everything. I had something like 80 hours of footage to go through while editing. It was this scene that just jumped out at me after Mike died in real life. The same goes for all the scenes of airplanes that Mike filmed that later made it into the film as omens of his death.

I do want to say, that certain persons close to Mike, did not like the idea of me filming where he died or including his death in my film. I completely understood their concern and it caused me much anxiety. But today, those same people are very happy I made the film and I am very gratified at this. I did not want to commercialize or use his death to benefit this film at all. I simply believed that his life, and now death, was a central message to anyone: that one can live a life of self-giving and be happy and fulfilled. Mike gave so much in volunteering during his life. You can read a post about this here. I also thought on a deeper level in a sort of divine economy, where one life was spared in the film, or two really, one being the boy Moises and the other myself, and one, the most unusual one, was taken and cut short. It seemed so sad to me, but I don’t question God or events of the world. I only know that he loves us and allows bad things to happen because we are free. All we can do is pray, learn and hold in our hearts the memories of those lost.

The other miracle in Arkansas was that of the Olwell family who ran the camp there where Tom and I stayed. Part of the Olwell family saw Mike and Bob’s plane the morning of the crash (Bob is Mike’s father--both perished that fateful day). We interviewed Ms. Olwell since she saw the plane right before it crashed. We just wanted to know about what she saw. But in a twist of fate, she had a much larger connection to Mike than we knew. The Olwell family had just moved to Arkansas from California. In California they volunteered for several years helping the mission of Mother Antonia, just as Mike had done. Every week for years  they assembled the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches her nuns give to the poor and prisoners in Tijuana. Ms. Olwell had never met Mike in person, but was just one person removed from him and helping in his same mission to the poor in Tijuana. 

After obtaining this footage I assembled the rest of the movie and finally released it. I know that Mike cannot watch it sitting next to me, but I am still confident he has seen the movie somehow. 

Ending this post I wanted to reflect on the final song of the film by Snatam Kaur, entitled Ong Namo. While I was editing the film I was looking for music. My co-writer on the film (and mutual friend of Mike) Cintya Ramirez came to me one day and told me to listen to it. I thought it was perfect to use  because of the emotion it portrayed and the meaning of the lyrics. I also figured that because it only had a few thousand hits on YouTube, it would be possible to license the music on my small budget. I gave up on the bigger artists I wanted to use because they were too expensive. Snatam Kaur’s team gave me a great deal on the rights to the song. (Now Ong Namo has millions of hits, so I was a bit lucky getting licensed before she made it big.)  Here are some of the lyrics of the song which I found to be perfect to remember Mike on the final scenes of the film:

Oh my Beloved

Kindness of the Heart
Breath of Life
I bow to You

Divine Teacher

Beloved Friend
I bow to You
again and again

Lotus sitting on the water

beyond time and space
this is Your way
this is Your grace

And I'm coming home…

I know that when Snatam speaks of God she is speaking of the self. The song is considered a new age Indian devotional song, known as a Kirtan. She is a Sikh, when she speaks of bowing to the divine teacher she is speaking of bowing to the “God” inside of us, the God who we are. I do not share her belief, nor did I mean to suggest Mike somehow shared in this idea of God. But for me the lyrics can be reinterpreted with God as the great Outward Figure: the God of Jacob, Abraham, Isaac and now the Holy Trinity. So for me it is a prayer to and for Mike: that as a human being he was a teacher to me and to many, a teacher of self-giving, of helping others by volunteering one’s time and talents. And that I bow to him, not as a God himself, but as someone I truly honor in life and in death. He did in fact go home and is “beyond time and space” now in the great divine that is heaven.

God bless you Mike, may your soul rest in peace. Requiem in Pacem

2009 Photo Chetumal, Quintana Roo, Mexico

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