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56th BFI London Film Festival: ‘West of Memphis’

By Matthew Rodgers Created: October 17, 2012 Last Updated: October 17, 2012
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A powerful chronicle following on from Paradise Lost (1996). (56th BFI London Film Festival)

A powerful chronicle following on from Paradise Lost (1996). (56th BFI London Film Festival)

The HBO documentary, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996), is an intense three hour case study of the horrific events which occurred in West Memphis, Arkansas in 1993. It is graphic, bruising and raw, as are it’s too less focused follow-ups. Now, after almost two decades, Amy Berg’s update acts as a human compendium to that litigation-heavy-series of documentaries. 

For those unaware of the case specifics, you can watch the entire nine hours of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s documentation of events, visit Wikipedia, or continue reading the following paragraphs. 

When the bodies of three small children were found bound and mutilated in a remote wooded area of West Memphis, all signs pointed towards a ritual killing. The police were quick to react, and based on the statements of some dubious occult “specialists”, rather than proper police work, arrested a trio of youths based principally on the way they looked. 

Damien Echols (18 years old) was sentenced to death, Jason Baldwin (16 years old) given life imprisonment, and Jesse Misskilley (18 years old), life plus two 20-year sentences. The convictions were achieved largely thanks to the forced testimony of the latter, a boy with severe learning disabilities, coerced into a confession, the taped evidence of which still inexplicably failed to raise questions during the original trial.

A combination of political ambition, corrupt police chiefs, stubborn judges, and general ineptitude, have snowballed the campaign to free the West Memphis Three. Partly funded by Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, their production company, Wingnut Films, are behind the movie, this presents new evidence, points the finger of suspicion at suspects you’ll be baffled the police overlooked, and paints an extraordinary tale of humanity against such a harrowing backdrop.

The triumph of Berg’s film is not just the potential end result, but the access granted to those involved. The mother of one of the victims is afforded plenty of screen time, Berg being well-aware that despite the injustices carried out against the West Memphis Three, at the heart of this there is still the unsolved murder of three young boys. Her documentary is imbued with an essence of humanity. 

Of the three, Echols is the most prominent (he acts as Producer), possibly due to his links with the genesis of the film. His wife, Lori Davis, with whom he got married whilst incarcerated, is the emotional driving force of the campaign. It was her that Jackson and Walsh reached out to, and it is through her that we witness the multitude of frustrations associated with challenging decades-old convictions. 

Narrativly, West of Memphis has two huge piques of interest, one of them is clearly the potentially life-saving outcome of the investigations, kept alive by the films many heroes – Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder has clearly invested every ounce of his soul into the cause, and Echols original trial lawyer, Dan Stidham, omnipresent throughout the entirety of the boys’ nightmare, has never waivered in his belief of their innocence. 

Intrigue also manifests in the form of some fresh evidence which pinpoints one of the children’s stepfathers as the potential murderer. The revelations, from the DNA investigations and from the mouth of the accused, are gasp inducing stuff. 

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the entire movie is that we are never given closure, or even an indication that the case remains open. It’s perhaps fitting that for a 20-year mystery which has left so many unanswered questions, that we still remain in the dark once the credits roll on this powerful chronicle. 

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Rating: 4 / 5

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  • caseevidence

    The police suspected Echols, not because of the way he looked, but because of the fact that he had a history of violence, threats of violence, psychotic behavior and because the West Memphis three were involved in a teenage cult in the area. The crimes were committed in a ritualistic fashion on a full moon. There was no forced testimony. Misskelley confessed FIVE different times, three times to the detectives (once in front of his own lawyer), once to the police and once again to his lawyer. Echols bragged about committing the crimes to several people before he was arrested. Baldwin told another person that he committed the crimes and this person passed a lie detector test about this.

    • srichard

      I’ve seen a similar comments elsewhere. You do know that new evidence re: dna is pointing to someone altogether different for these murders right? It has been discovered that the stepfather of one of the boys was a very violent and abusive individual and yet, was ignored as a suspect by the authorities at the time. This is, at the very least, a curious omission in observation and, at worst, completely inept work by the police, the lawyers and the court.

      Do you know how many murders could be said to have been committed in a ritualistic fashion? Serial murderers are ritualistic. No satanism or cults for them; they’re just plain old nut-bags.

      The case against these lads came apart at the seams and that is the kind of thing that will not sit well with the folks who may end up being blamed for a miscarriage of justice. Not to mention the fact that, if these lads are indeed innocent, then the POS who killed those poor children is still out there; and their parents have to deal with that too.


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