24 Frames

Movies: Past, present and future

« Previous Post | 24 Frames Home | Next Post »

WM3 documentary 'Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory' to open in L.A.

November 3, 2011 |  4:14 pm


The latest documentary about the fate of the case of the West Memphis 3, "Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory," isn't scheduled to be broadcast on HBO until early next year, but fans of the series in Los Angeles might want to make the trek to Laemmle's Fallbrook 7 in West Hills where the film opens Friday for one week only.

The limited run is designed specifically to give the film the opportunity to qualify for an Oscar nomination.

Filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky first brought attention to the plight of Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols and Jessie Misskelley Jr. -- teenagers who were convicted of the gruesome 1993 murders of three 8-year-old boys in West Memphis, Ark. -- with the 1996 documentary "Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills." Though the filmmakers initially intended to make a film about disaffected youth -- the prosecution and local media made much of the fact that the convicted teens wore black clothing and listened to heavy metal music -- what they found were three innocent young men who had been convicted of a crime they didn't commit.

"Paradise Lost" spurred international interest in the story of the three jailed men, who became known as the West Memphis 3, and Berlinger and Sinofsky felt compelled to make a follow-up film, 2000's "Paradise Lost 2: Revelations" to advocate for Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley to be released from prison and exonerated. The films garnered support not only from such celebrities as Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder, Natalie Maines, Peter Jackson and Henry Rollins, but also sparked the formation of grassroots groups like the website wm3.org.

As the case continued to work its way through the courts, Berlinger and Sinofsky began working on a third film in 2004, though the director said recently that he and his producing partner had been waiting for a compelling reason to finish and release it. That happened in November 2010, when the Arkansas Supreme Court granted the West Memphis Three the right to present new evidence to the court in a  hearing that was set for December 2011.

With those dates in mind, Berlinger and Sinofsky planned to publicly debut "Purgatory" this month to refocus public interest in the case; the film was scheduled to play in advance at prestigious film festivals in Toronto and New York City to spur critical interest.

Then in the span of a few short weeks this summer, prosecutors made overtures that resulted in the defendants being offered the legally obscure Alford Plea, which allowed them to plead guilty while still maintaining their innocence. They were sentence to time served and finally freed, though not exonerated -- meaning that the men are unable to sue for civil damages and the state of Arkansas is under no obligation to investigate the crimes further.

Although "Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory" premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in early September in its original version, a new coda was assembled reflecting the events of Aug. 19, when the men went free after being imprisoned for 18 years, for the movie's screening at the New York Film Festival in October. Baldwin, Echols and Misskelley attended the event, where they received an emotional standing ovation from an audience of nearly 1,100 people.

One week later, Berlinger screened the film at the Silent Movie Theatre as part of a program put on by the International Documentary Assn., where he spoke about revisiting the same subject three times over nearly two decades.

"The challenge for making this film was on the one hand, I think 'Paradise Lost 2' suffered ... you kind of had to see '1' to appreciate '2,' " Berlinger said at the IDA screening. "We wanted '3' to be a self-sufficient viewing experience. We do a very limited but important retelling of '1' and '2' but using footage that's never been seen. Ninety percent of the footage is our own outtakes that haven't been used before. It stands on its own, hopefully."

Both together and apart, Berlinger and Sinofsky have made a number of other documentaries -- they collaborated on 1992's "Brother's Keeper" and 2004's "Metallica: Some Kind of Monster," among other projects -- but the "Paradise Lost" films have been a constant in their lives. Berlinger mentioned at the IDA event that his daughter had just turned 17 and during every phase of her childhood and adolescence, he was mindful of the fact that the WM3 remained wrongfully jailed, teenagers, then men denied the chance to have a normal life.

Even now, their freedom seems somehow conditional and compromised, Berlinger said: "With this crazy Alford plea, basically the state of Arkansas is saying to families of victims -- and two of the three families of the victims have to come to believe the West Memphis Three are innocent --  'We're not going to pursue the real killer.' It's one of the many tragedies of the outcome that we all witnessed in August."

On Thursday, word came that Berlinger and Sinofsky would receive an inaugural Hell Yeah Prize from the doc-focused Cinema Eye Honors awards in recognition of their "incredible craft and artistry" that also has "significant, real-world impact." The award will be presented on Jan. 11 at the 5th Annual Cinema Eye Honors ceremony to be held at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, N.Y.

Despite the "Paradise Lost" series now ranking among  documentaries that aided positive change in the world, the circumstances and legal complications of the release of the men who have now spent essentially half their lives in prison is unexpectedly bittersweet. 

"It's a total joke," Berlinger said. "No prosecutorial accountability, no compensation for lost youth, no looking for the real killer. I think Jason says it best, it's not justice."


West Memphis 3 outcome 'bittersweet,' filmmaker says

West Memphis 3 are freed after 18 years behind bars

-- Mark Olsen


Photo: From left, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, Jessie Misskelley Jr., Joe Berlinger, HBO's Sheila Nevins and Bruce Sinofsky at the New York Film Festival. Credit:  @radical.media