In 1993, the bodies of three eight-year-old boys were found next to a muddy creek in the Robin Hood Hills area of West Memphis, Arkansas. One month later three local teenagers were arrested and convicted of the murders – Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols and Jessie Misskelley. Baldwin and Misskelley were sentenced to life without parole and Echols was handed the death penalty. The third installment in a series of documentaries about the story, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, has debuted at the New York Film Festival.
Filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky (Metallica: Some Kind of Monster) travelled to West Memphis a few days after the arrest of the teens, who became known as the West Memphis Three. The filmmakers immediately embedded themselves into the story and forged what would become lasting ties. Says Sinofsky at the New York Film Festival press conference for the documentary, “by the end of the first film we believed these guys were innocent and it’s been with us on a weekly, daily basis for 18 years”.
The context of the teenagers’ arrests was fraught. Innuendo, a lack of evidence, hearsay and assumptions were all major components of the case brought against them by the police. Says Berlinger now, “I think what happened was a lethal brew. This happened at a time when there was a wave of satanic hysteria. This is a community, a region of the country, where people literally believe in heaven and hell. That the devil walks among us. The wild tale that the prosecutors told was quite believable to people. This is also a region of the world where people believe in their authority figures without question – even today."
Local media propelled the official narrative of events. “We were stunned,” says Berlinger. “It didn’t take brain surgery to realise that something was a miss. The whole thing didn’t make sense. But for the local media it was much easier to fill that monster of the daily headline and the evening news and tell that devil-worshipping story. I think the entire jury pool was polluted before this thing started.”
Following the release of the first documentary, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills in 1996 a wave of support emerged in the United States, led by Eddie Vedder and Johnny Depp, who donated money and helped draw attention to the plight of the teens. The film became a potent example of documentary as activism, filling the gaps in local and national news coverage.
It is a bittersweet function that the films continue to serve. “Yes, it is these films that inspired the movement. But there is a larger issue. Why does it take three well-funded HBO documentaries, and the millions of dollars from Eddie Vedder and Johnny Depp, to give these guys the kind of justice and trial and investigation that they deserved 18 years ago? These films did inspire change and it’s a sad comment on society that it takes documentaries and wealthy celebrities to make that happen,” says Berlinger.
Since the release of the original film in1996 and the subsequent second documentary in the series, Paradise Lost 2: Revelations (2000), Berlinger admits that both the media and community have revised their standpoint. “Over time the community has come to embrace the truth and the media has done an about face. One of the fascinating journeys of this film is the local media. It was very responsible for having convicted these guys but as time unfolded, starting in the mid-2000s, the local media has been instrumental in righting the wrong.”
In a remarkable turn of events, documented by the filmmakers and included in the film, Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley are now in a position to see the film at its New York premiere.
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