By Rose Hunter.
I should start with the disclaimer that I’d never heard of the “West Memphis Three” before I saw this film, nor of the documentary series that told their story, the Paradise Lost trilogy.
However, this meant that the documentary style and revelations in the film were all the more convincing when delivered as part of a broader narrative that was completely new to me; combined with director Amy Berg’s brilliant storytelling, this made West of Memphis one the best films I’ve seen in a long time.
West of Memphis is based on the true story of three young men who were tried and convicted of brutally murdering and mutilating three seven-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas in 1994. Known as the “West Memphis Three”, Jessie Miskelly Junior and Jason Baldwin were subsequently jailed for life, while Damien Echols was placed on death row. Aged 17 and 16 and 18 respectively when they were tried, the film charts the trials and convictions of the three and the years that follow.
(Amy Berg) has demonstrated that she is not one to shy away from challenging content.
This is Berg’s second feature-length documentary, her first being the critically acclaimed Deliver us from Evil, which tackled sex abuse cases in the Catholic Church. She has demonstrated that she is not one to shy away from challenging content. Here, she had the support of producer Peter Jackson, director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and a long-term campaigner for the West Memphis Three.
The film follows the critically acclaimed Paradise Lost documentary trilogy directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. The HBO trilogy is widely credited with creating the publicity for the West Memphis case that ultimately led it to be questioned.
Much of West of Memphis’ first act mirrors the story that was told in the three Paradise Lost films, although this film has the advantage of taking viewers to the present day. Berg benefits from the extensive footage shot by Berlinger and Sinofsky at the time of the trials featuring the three accused, the victim’s families and the furore that surrounded the case at the time. Court cases in Arkansas are still not normally filmed, and Jason Baldwin considers this exception to be a key reason why the case subsequently gained so much public attention.
Berg’s emotionally persuasive methods are less convincing when presented to an audience conditioned by the first half of the film to be wary of taking evidence on face value.
One of the most interesting, yet disconcerting, things about this film is how convincing the narrative is. The early parts of the film are spent training the audience to be critical of the way opinions were constructed about the West Memphis Three – we are made to consider the way evidence for the case was under-researched, the way the media painted a picture of the situation for the local community, the way that a pack mentality affected the public and how this influenced the police, who were more desperate for a conclusion than the truth. In the latter part of the film, new evidence is emotively presented about the case. Yet Berg’s emotionally persuasive methods are less convincing when presented to an audience conditioned by the first half of the film to be wary of taking evidence on face value.
West of Memphis demonstrates that courts can be corrupt and legal evidence can be stained by the blind impetus of authorities to close a case and appear as heroes rather than seek the truth. I’m still trying to decide if the film’s argument extends to advocating for the use of film in documenting truth over legal methods. It certainly questions the notion of a “fair trail” and the impartiality of the US legal system.
It manages to revisit the subject matter of the Paradise Lost trilogy and build on it, pulling together an enthralling story supported by fascinating footage from the time in addition to extensive modern day evidence such as interviews with victim’s families. The film raises an often-ignored perspective on the US justice system. However, it also asks broader questions about our notions of truth, our belief in and respect for authority and public perceptions of the socially disadvantaged that are relevant to all of us.
West of Memphis is currently screening in limited release.