Interrogating the present by documenting history

Marcia A. Smith is a writer and executive director of Firelight Media, a not-for-profit company that produces documentary films on history and contemporary social issues. Smith won the Writer’s Guild Award and was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award for writing The Murder of Emmett Till and in 2006 released the critically acclaimed Jonestown: Life and Death of People’s Temple.

How has Jonestown been received across the country?
The reception has been fantastic. This is our first film in theaters, and as of now, we are booked in 16 cities in the U.S. and Canada. For young people, the whole thing [the story of the mass suicide at Jonestown] is new…and we’re thrilled that we are up on YouTube and over 150,000 people have seen the trailer there–most of them young people, I presume.

I think one thing that attracts people is that they really don’t understand what happened. Our tendency, mine included, is to want to push away the people that committed suicide and draw a line between them and us, putting them on the “crazy” side. Well, what we found doing the film is that Peoples Temple members were motivated by high social ideals and wanted what we all want–to live a meaningful life, to be part of something larger than ourselves. Jonestown also represents a very human capacity for destruction and self-destruction, which we’ve seen other terrible examples of throughout history.

What are your upcoming projects and plans for 2007?
We’ve just started working on the last hour of a five-hour series for PBS on Native American history. The hour we’re doing is about the contemporary Indian movement of the 1960s and 1970s: the takeover of Alcatraz, the BIA building in D.C. and, especially, the occupation of Wounded Knee in 1973. It’s an incredible story and has a lot of lessons for all of us. I feel really privileged to be working on it; I also feel a tremendous responsibility to get the nuances of the story straight. That’s what’s weighing on me right now. Lastly, we’re developing a film on Black sexuality in Hollywood.

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