Last October when the documentary Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory premiered at the New York Film Festival, filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky celebrated an unanticipated event: the release from prison of the West Memphis 3. For documentary filmmakers, it doesn't get better than this: having your work bring about change.
In 1993, a newspaper item about the murder of three 8-year olds in West Memphis and the three teenaged boys arrested for the crime piqued the interest of HBO's Sheila Nevins. She called the filmmaking team of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, sending them south to document the case. The filmmakers thought they were going to tell a tale about guilty teens and Satanic rituals in the heartland. Finding the evidence overwhelming that the men were innocent, instead they made a movie that pointed toward a miscarriage of justice. Two earlier versions of the documentary, shown at the Film Society of Lincoln Center's New Directions/ New Films festival and HBO galvanized support for the convicted young men. After 18 years in prison, the men were released this past August.
The third film in the Paradise Lost progression brings us up to date with the story of the convicted men, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley. Awarded this week for Best Documentary by the National Board of Review, the filmmakers also received the inaugural Hell Yeah award at The Cinema Eye Honors for Non-Fiction Filmmaking Awards last night at the Museum for the Moving Image, presented by Jason Baldwin. Tonight the film will air on HBO.
Last week at HBO, I had a chance to talk to Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky about the film, the awards, and the controversies. Joe answered most questions with Bruce adding a word in edgewise.
With three films, it seems this is a never-ending series. Is there another one in the works?
We've done three films over two decades. The guys got out of prison. For us this feels like the end of an era. There's kind of a big machine in place: another documentary by Peter Jackson, a feature by Atom Egoyan; it is time to pass the baton. Being involved in this saga was thrilling and emotionally draining. My daughter, who is 17½ and about to go to college, was born during the making of the first film. I had a child born during the making of each movie and there wasn't a time when I considered their progress, first steps, and thought, these guys are rotting in prison. As human beings and friends we will try to do everything to get them exonerated. Making another film just doesn't feel right. Maybe that will change in five years. But right now, we're done.
Why is the Paradise Lost series still controversial?
Some people will see the films as a character, as self-aggrandizing. There's a deeper theme in the entire trilogy: why does it take three well-funded HBO documentaries and millions of dollars from celebrities and regular people to get these guys the kind of defense that they deserved back in 1993? That's a deeply disturbing question. In my experience with Crude, I saw legal papers filed against me, creating a portrait of me that justified invading my privacy. A portrait has been painted of the West Memphis 3 that landed them in such dire straits. The justice system can become not the sacrosanct search for the truth but rather who's got the resources to spin their own story and that's troubling: that's what the state of justice is in this country. Naysayers on an anti-West Memphis 3 website are saying that they let three guilty killers out of prison because Johnny Depp and Eddie Vedder were upset. They think justice bowed to Hollywood pressure.
What about Peter Jackson's film? Why is most of the spotlight on Damien? He is a producer on Peter Jackson's film.
Obvious reasons. He is very charismatic. In the first film he was so much more articulate. In the first film, Jason -- you could barely hear him at all. Jesse is not the brightest bulb. There's something about him people are attracted to. They see themselves, including Johnny Depp. We have heard from tens of thousands of people, regular and celebrities who say, 'I liked Metallica. I was different in high school. That could have been me.' Damien's personality is what led to his undoing. In the first film, he was not his own best friend on the witness stand. He was a narcissistic, alienated kid who never thought that he would be convicted. He reveled in the attention is some weird way and that was his undoing. The same charisma has brought the world to him.
Peter Jackson took a particular interest in Damien's case. But it is Jason who has the last word in the entire trilogy; he makes a very passionate speech about justice not being served. Jason is now going back to college. Someone is paying for the first two years of his college education. When the film premiered in Europe, I brought Jason over. People were impressed by how not bitter he is. The day after he got out we had lunch and he wanted to say grace at the table. You could get bitter as time wore on, but getting out after 18 years, this guy was generous. That's his personality, who he is. And Damien will have a career.
Peter Jackson is going to be at Sundance with his film. And you are going with another film. How do you feel about that?
Yes, I am going with a film about Paul Simon, Under African Skies, about the 25th anniversary of the Graceland record. On the surface it is a musical story because it was a great achievement, the first time African music has been fused with popular music in such a big and important way. The record created a new category of music. When it first came out, Graceland was heavily criticized by anti-apartheid activists because Paul allegedly broke the cultural boycott designed to bring down the South African regime and he was put on the UN blacklist. He was quite wounded by all that so we went back to South Africa this summer. Paul reunited with all the musicians to give a reunion concert. He spoke to anti-apartheid activists who had been against him so it's a resolution, a political story, and explication of how that record was made, why it was so special from a musical standpoint. I love the film. It's got great music and I got a really good story.
You are winning awards. What do they mean to you?
We have won a lot of awards for our films. It is wonderful to be acknowledged. I give them to my kids. The real Oscar for us is, we helped three guys out of prison. Nothing could be more rewarding than that. That's more of a legacy than a film award. In the documentary business to actually have measurable change on a subject that we care about, that doesn't happen very often. And I went through this excruciating lawsuit last year with Chevron on Crude. I had a 2X4 whacked over my head fighting this First Amendment battle and I lost, and my footage has been used negatively by Chevron. I spent last year questioning whether I should have made that movie. So to have the reverse experience of having positive social change to me is the award.
If people want to recognize the cinema in it and give us prizes, that's wonderful. We've gotten awards in the past. We've been ignored in the past. We've been doing this work for a long time and this is the first time we've been shortlisted for the Academy Award. That's a high for us.
And Hell Yeah! Any award called Hell Yeah, we've got to have.
A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.