Premiering on HBO this Thursday, January 12: PARADISE LOST 3: PURGATORY
Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky premiered their third film on the West Memphis Three at Toronto last September. Before the festival took place, the case took a dramatic turn, resulting in the duo shooting an addendum, which did not premiere until the next month at the New York Film Festival. Since then, it has screened at a number of other fests, including the Hamptons and IDFA.
The story of Berlinger and Sinofsky’s PARADISE LOST films is now well-known, and that notoriety has itself become an integral part of the story. As in Pamela Yates recent GRANITO, both PARADISE LOST 2 and the most recent film are to some extent about the real world impact the filmmakers’ previous films have had on the subjects they’ve documented. While this meta aspect is not overemphasized, it is abundantly clear that the case the documentary trilogy has followed for more than 15 years would not be at all familiar were it not for these films. For those who might not be familiar, however: In 1993, three young boys were murdered in Arkansas, and three teenagers were convicted of the crime based on suspect evidence and a dodgy confession. After the first PARADISE LOST film aired on HBO, a number of viewers mobilized in support of the teens, dubbed the “West Memphis Three,” who, it seemed, were railroaded. The second film took the tactic of examining potential evidence against one of the parents as the likely actual culprit, and awakened further doubts about the case, engendering more support for the WM3. Revisiting the story a decade after the sequel, Berlinger and Sinofsky could not have imagined that the WM3 would be released – as signified by the third film’s subtitle, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley Jr were stuck in a holding pattern, jailed for nearly two decades, with appeals regularly dismissed and no end in sight. The film reviews and now discounts the evidence against the parent from the second film, but explores another potential suspect and new evidence, some made possible by DNA, other by new witnesses. The unexpected twist, of course, comes when the WM3 are allowed to go free – though they have lost their youth, three young boys were still killed, and the real murderer remains unpunished. Still, taken together, the trilogy unequivocally demonstrates the power of documentary to influence audiences and affect dramatic change.