Friday, January 13, 2012

For Your Consideration: Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory for Best Documentary Feature

Last night, HBO premiered the latest and probably last installment of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's three-film Paradise Lost saga detailing the arrest, trials, and appeals of the West Memphis 3, and followed it up by airing the first two documentaries. Needless to say, I didn't get much sleep last night. Watching the three films in (near) succession was a revelation. For the last eighteen years, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelly have been in prison, Echols on death row, for the brutal murder of three eight-year-old Cub Scouts in West Memphis, Arkansas. The first two films chronicle the way the three teenagers were railroaded by Satanic panic and mob mentality into their sentences, despite the state presenting only the most circumstantial of evidence. I mean, you couldn't even convict someone in an Agatha Christie novel with the coerced confession by Misskelly, an "expert" on the occult with a mail-order Ph.D., and a parade of witnesses that testified to nothing much more than Echols's and Baldwin's collective difference, marked by their goth wardrobe and taste in music. But what makes the third film remarkable is not only its made-for-the-movies epilogue, but also the way it details how time has simultaneously stood still and accelerated for the three men.

The West Memphis 3, now in their mid-thirties, have been physically, emotionally, and intellectually transformed by their ordeal. Misskelly now resembles a man in his forties. Echols's haunted sunken eyes and ghostly pallor--due to the total lack of sunlight in his confinement--makes the round-faced, cocky boy who took the stand in 1994 seem like a distant relative rather than the same person. Echols has also largely lost his Southern accent, along with his bravado. He admits that his fuck-you attitude during the trial probably didn't help his case, though his ticket was probably already punched even if he had behaved like a choir boy in the courtroom. For me, Jason Baldwin's evolution is the most striking. In the first film, he is an undersized and diffident kid, clearly used to letting his best friend Damien do the talking for the both of them. This film finds him hyper-articulate, legally sophisticated, and enraged at the miscarriage of justice that has stolen half his life away. And no matter whether you believe the three guilty or innocent, it seems to me undeniable that due process was trampled on, in the first film in order to get a conviction for a crime that shocked, sickened, and terrified the community, and in the second by the prosecution's and presiding judge's refusal to admit they may have been wrong as evidence continued to surface that exonerated the boys and excoriated the trials.

The transformation of the three subjects of the film is echoed by the point of view of the documentary itself. Berlinger insists that he began filming in 1993 convinced of the guilt of the three boys. Whether he's bluffing or not, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills has the feel of a film looking for truth rather than professing it (see the collected works of Michael Moore for examples of the latter). As the movies progress, the relationships being formed between the filmmakers and the principals, including some members of the victims' families, develop and deepen and evolve over time. That intimacy results not only in more access for the directors, but also a more subtle and complicated depiction of the turn the case takes in the last section of the film.

The three men submitted an Alford plea in August of last year, which allowed them to profess their innocence but plead guilty to the crime and be released on time served. It's the sort of fubar maneuver that is sadly in keeping with the way the case has been handled in the previous two decades, and turns Paradise Lost 3 into a meditation on the meaning of justice in theory and practice. Baldwin states it best when he wryly comments that when he said he was innocent, they sent him to jail, but when he admitted guilt, they let him go. And Baldwin also, it is revealed during a press conference, initially refused the deal. This seems in keeping with his commitment to unambiguously clearing his name, and thereby in some way restoring integrity to a broken system. However, as he explains, "They were trying to kill Damien," so he took the deal to save his friend. There was something about the way he said that that was simultaneously guileless and resigned--the voice of both the kid and the man none of these three has ever really gotten to be.

Thanks in no small part to this series of films, as everyone interviewed agreed, the West Memphis 3 have been released, which is evidence of the kind of social and political work good art can do. For that reason, I hope to see Berlinger and Sinofsky Oscared come February. I mean, I liked Senna too, but these three films are a pretty monumental achievement, and the Academy is accustomed to rewarding a body of work with one award. See: Return of the King.

Looks like another documentary on this case is on its way from long-time WM3 supporter Peter Jackson. Check out Alisa's Trailer Park post to give it a look!

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