In short: in 1993 in West Memphis, Arkansas, three young boys were brutally murdered – their bodies discovered naked, tied-up and in the stream of a local woods. With allegations of cult rituals brewing and panicked fears of Satanic hysteria in the air, three local misfit teenagers -- later known as the West Memphis Three -- were arrested, tried and then convicted of the murders amid some pretty thin and circumstantial evidence (including a dubious confession later recanted).
All the while two HBO documentarians, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky (known for the Roger Ebert-heralded doc “Brother’s Keeper” and years later, Metallica’s “Some Kind Of Monster”) were embedded on the ground shooting the entire trial and following the ups and down of the case – including the grassroots campaign to have the trio freed – for two decades.
With the alleged perpetrators imprisoned for 17 years, the campaign to re-open and retry these cases came to a head this August, shortly before a breakthrough evidentiary hearing was allowed and scheduled. We won’t spoil what went down, but let’s just say, some kind of justice (whether it was unfair or not is arguable) occurred. Right after the world premiere of their final version of “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory” – which had to be retweaked after August’s surprise legal decision – the directors Berlinger and Sinofsky spoke to the media at the New York Film Festival. Here’s what we learned (and some spoilers below if you’re unfamiliar with the films and case, but you can read more about it here).
1. While Berlinger and Sinofsky do think their documentaries were partly responsible for helping free the West Memphis Three, they say activism in the cause was a huge help.
Obviously without the “Paradise Lost” documentaries the public may have never heard about this case and the groundswell to have them freed may have never had a chance to grow. “There’s a superficial answer and a deeper answer,” Berlinger said when asked if his docs affected this change. “The superficial answer is we were told that the state of Arkansas was actually quite concerned about the broadcast of the [third and final] film, which was originally scheduled for November” (it will now arrive on HBO in January).
“The films have obviously had an impact,” he explained further. “But the larger issue; what has won the day here is the 10,000 activists. I’m so amazed at how many people around the world had joined in this movement. For every Johnny Depp and Eddie Vedder there were just tens of thousands of regular people -- those were really just selfless acts of dedication to this cause. That really pushed it over the edge. It’s astounding to me just how big the support was.”
2. “Satanic hysteria” looks comical in retrospect, and an inexcusable reason to convict innocent teenagers of a heinous crime, but the filmmakers say things were very different then, and these fears were very real.
“The world has changed dramatically when we went down there in ’93,” Berlinger said, noting that they arrived in West Memphis only a few days after their arrest and had a full vantage view of the frenzy that arose. “I don’t want to be disrespectful to fundamental Christianity or religion, but what happened here was a lethal brew... at a time when this wave of Satanic hysteria [had hit]. People really believed that that stuff was happening, even though shortly after this case came up, the FBI discredited all of those claims.”
“This was a region of the country where people literally believed in heaven and hell, and that the devils walk amongst us and so this wild tale that the prosecutors told was quite believable to people,” Berlinger said, adding that this was a region of the country where people believed in their authority figures without question.
3. The local media only helped fuel the bible-belt based fear and the witch-hunt-like panic.
“We were stunned,” Berlinger said of the media’s wild approach upon their arrival in West Memphis to cover the arrests. “It didn’t take brain surgery to get down there and realize something was amiss. From the moment that we spoke to [the three teenagers, then just suspects], it took us a few months to negotiate access, but once you sat down with them it just didn’t make sense. You look at Jason Baldwin’s scrawny little arms, there’s no blood at the crime scene. You tell me that three teenagers are going to take three little boys into the woods and slaughter them mercilessly and not leave tissue and blood? I mean the whole thing didn’t make sense.”
For the local media, it was much easier to feed that monster of the evening news and simply tell the devil worshiping story. “I think the entire jury was polluted before this thing started because they believed in heaven and hell and they believed in the police and the media was telling them these kids were devil worshipers,” Berlinger said. “In terms of police training, they had zero training zero ability to deal with this kind of a crime.”
The local Sunday church sermons – which everyone in the entire community attended – only made it worse. “Every Sunday they were talking about the West Memphis Three and their guilt and good versus evil,” Bruce Sinofsky said, noting that the deck was stacked against them from minute one. “And when you have ministers going on the local news saying how guilty they were before jury selection, Joe and I would look at each other and say, ‘These guys are toast.’ It was just unbelievable what was going on down there.”
4. As HBO documentarians, Berlinger and Sinofsky stuck out like a sore thumb in West Memphis at first. First the reaction was hostility, but then they became embraced. The local media has also radically changed.
“We were those two Jew boys from New York. They recognized us,” Sinofsky quipped when asked if they were identifiable
“When the films first came out there was a lot of antipathy towards us,” Berlinger said before joking that they’d had never received so many flowers before. “But over time the community has come to embrace the truth, the media has done an about face and you know, one of the fascinating journeys of this film I think is that the local media I think is very responsible for having helped convict these guys, but as time unfolded, starting in the mid 2000’s the media actually, especially the local media has been instrumental in righting the wrong. “
5. The “Paradise Lost” films often walk a very tricky line of investigative documentary filmmaking and operational activism. Berlinger admits that mistakes have been made along the way.
In trying to show that there were many reasonable doubts in these cases, “The Paradise Lost” documentaries have often dangerous veered closely to pointing the fingers at others. Both Berlinger and Sinofsky acknowledge that bringing new evidence to light without accusing others has been a complicated balance.
“There’s all sorts of ethical and philosophical filmmaking issues,” Berliner said about making these documentaries. “Not the least of which is the reliability of information and what is the nature of truth.” The filmmakers said figuring out what to put in these movies has been a gigantic challenge and some of the errors made are still disconcerting.
“The second film follows the suspicion of [one of the murdered boys’ fathers], and also follows the theory of human bite marks which was later discarded,” he said. “And so it troubles me that we made a film and put it out in the world, I think we’re still proud of those films but there are things in those films that I wouldn’t put in the films today, and therefore what is the nature of truth with the passage of time?”
“These films did inspire change,” Berlinger said. “But it’s a sad comment on society that it takes documentaries and wealthy celebrities to make that happen. There have been hundreds of DNA exonerations in the last several years and DNA experts say that’s just the tip of the iceberg with innocent people in prison. So why does it take films in this instance? Anyway so it is an issue we grapple with.”
6. While the murders haven’t been solved and the West Memphis Three’s names haven’t been fully exonerated (read here for more if you want to know what happened in the trial) we may not see any more films about these men. Whether anyone tries to find out who actually committed the crimes is another story.
“We believed when we made the first film by the end of it that these guys were innocent,” Sinofsky said. "And it’s been with us on a weekly, daily basis for 18 years. With all these guys [out of prison] – we’ve meals with them and spent time with them, and you know, now go on and have a great life, that’s my feeling but maybe it’s time to turn the cameras off and just let them live their lives and I’m proud of them. I’m not sure I could live for 18 years on death row and have the civility that [they] have.”
And while the filmmakers might not be pursuing the case any longer they too would still like to see some justice.
“The only three people who know who did [the crimes] are the three boys and whoever did it and we don’t have any definitive answer, and we would like investigators to go out there and see if they can find who did this, otherwise it will happen somewhere else in other parts of the country,” Sinofsky said.
Considering all the time and money the state of Arkansas spent on trying, convicting and imprisoning the wrong men, Sinofsky added, “Shame on them for not going after the person, or persons who did it.”
The first public screening of the fully completed "Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory" premieres at the New York Film Festival on Monday, October 10th at 6:00 pm. The West Memphis Three -- Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr. --will be in attendance, making their first public appearance at the screening.
Here's a teaser trailer for the documentary.
Here's Johnny Depp, one of the more famous celebs who backed the campaign, talking at a West Memphis Three benefit.