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. Premiering at the New York Film Festival, the film will also be screened at this weekend's Hamptons International Film Festival.
Introducing the film, the filmmakers, and the now-freed West Memphis 3 (WM3) at a press lunch at HBO, Nevins said, "This is not just a television review, this is America," pointing toward the wider impact of this film and the importance of sticking with a story. And the story is not yet over.
Even though HBO became a love fest with everyone "moved, thrilled, and happy" that innocent men were freed, the ending is really bittersweet. The WM3 had to plead guilty to the crime under a legal Catch-22 called the Alford Plea. Innocent, they also had to sign documents saying they would not prosecute the state of Arkansas for wrongfully imprisoning them. Jason did not want to comply, but then realizing that Damien could be executed before the case could be retried with new DNA evidence, he realized the importance of essentially playing along with an untruth. People are now pushing for exoneration. You could say, that while they are no longer jailed, the WM3 are in Purgatory, as is the justice system of the United States.
Many questions are raised by this riveting documentary including the morality of the death penalty. It was not long before the recent Troy Davis execution came up.
In the meantime, the case of three little boys raped, mutilated, and murdered in West Memphis in 1993 remains cold.
A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.