After almost 20 years, West Memphis Three chroniclers close the book
When done well, documentary film has the rare ability to transcend the confines of the silver screen to effect real change in the lives of its subjects. Like Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line, filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s Paradise Lost trilogy about the West Memphis Three helped free three wrongly convicted men. With their third installment in the series, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, which premieres on HBO Jan. 12, the duo has closed the book on a story they have chronicled for almost 20 years—one that has left an indelible mark on them as filmmakers.
The story entered their lives by chance. In 1993, Sinofsky said, he and Berlinger were working on a film about the funeral industry when Sheila Nevins, president of HBO Documentary Films, sent them a small piece from the New York Times’ wire service. The brief described how three teens—Damien Echols, 18, Jason Baldwin, 16, and Jessie Misskelley, 17—were alleged to have killed three 8-year-old boys in a creek in West Memphis, Ark. The article, which was biased against the teens, inspired Berlinger and Sinofsky to travel to the South, pursuing a story about children killing children.
“[We started filming] right as the guys were arrested. The trials were a long way off…Our original impulse was to tell the bad-guy story, which makes for good cinema,” Berlinger recalled. “But halfway through, we realized they were innocent. I wouldn’t say a lightbulb went off, but we started to seriously doubt the state’s version of events.”
Over the course of the trials, state prosecutors posited that the teenaged trio killed the young boys in a satanic ritual. With the trial kicking up a media frenzy, Berlinger said those involved stopped asking basic questions surrounding the teenagers’ assumed guilt, like about the lack of physical evidence at the crime scene or DNA evidence linking the teens to the site. Misskelley and Baldwin were eventually sentenced to life imprisonment, while Echols was put on death row.
After the first film, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, which documented the trials and those involved in the case, was released in 1996, both Berlinger and Sinofsky thought the film would lead to outrage and the reopening of the case. While it was met with critical acclaim and sparked a grassroots campaign to free the teens, dubbed the West Memphis Three, it did little to speed up the cogs of justice.
It was at that point that Berlinger’s view of filmmaking as advocacy work began to change. Early in his career, Berlinger said he thought of himself as a storyteller first; the advocacy element wasn’t much of a factor in his work.
“The first film was a strange experience…It did everything a filmmaker could want a film to do: It won an Emmy and a Peabody, received great reviews, had a nice theatrical run and was HBO’s highest recorded broadcast at the time,” Berlinger said. “But it felt strange to be handed a statue while the people whose story you are telling were still in a little cell living in misery.”
After Paradise Lost 2: Revelations was released in 2000, Baldwin says that even his the guards began to believe his innocence and treated him better. While not technically allowed to watch the films in prison, certain guards helped Baldwin see them.
“They came to see me as a person and that what happened to me was wrong,” Baldwin said in an interview.
Almost 10 years later, in the midst of preparing to release the third documentary on Aug. 19, 2011, it was announced that Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley had accepted the rarely used Alford plea, in which they were freed while the state maintained their guilt. Backed by a cadre of celebrity supporters, like Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and the Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Maines, and a team of experts, the trio were preparing an appeal when the plea was negotiated. While Baldwin has said he would have stayed in jail until his record was exonerated, Echols’ delicate health due to prolonged stints in solitary confinement on death row and the looming possibility of his execution spurred the three men to agree to the deal.
While Berlinger described the plea as a bittersweet conclusion, he and Sinofsky were faced with a different challenge: creating an alternative ending for their film, which was set to premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in September. With Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, Berlinger and Sinofsky sought to make two films: one that appealed to those who had avidly watched the story and one for those unfamiliar with the case. The pair culled never-used footage from the shoot of the original film and looked at previously overlooked themes, like the stepfather of one of the murdered boys emerging as a possible suspect. The film has been shortlisted for an Academy Award.
While it appears the story has reached its conclusion and the men are moving on with their lives—Baldwin reported receiving his driver’s license and getting his first job—the experience of documenting this extraordinary story has stayed with Berlinger and Sinofsky. While watching days upon days’ worth of footage for Paradise Lost 3, Sinofsky was struck by the feeling that “after 18 years, it was still fresh in our minds. The experience was so acute it was as if it had never really disappeared.”
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