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Three babies are in the water.  Gone missing from their small Arkansas town, the trio of eight-year-old boys is discovered cold and lifeless in a creek in unimaginable fashion; nude, hog-tied and sexually mutilated.  So begins a nightmare from which many will never wake.

On the occasion in 1993, three teenagers, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley were accused of the killings at Robin Hood Hills, based mostly on suspicion and circumstantial evidence.  The mood of the populace at the time was high and vengeful, so these misfits, including and particularly the black-clad, Aleister Crowley-influenced Goth boy, Echols, were easy scapegoats for a rushed investigation that just wanted to close the book on this unthinkable crime.  That there was no hard evidence linking the trio to the murders of Christopher Byers, Steven Branch and Michael Moore and the fact that many of the eyewitnesses who claimed to put them at the scene were complete liars seemed of no difference so long as there was someone to blame.  That might’ve been the end of the story and the end of the line for the boys, who were sentenced to life in prison and Echols to death, but for their connection to a pair of documentarians, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, who in 1996, exposed the miscarriage of justice and presented alternate theories as to who the actual murderer of the boys might’ve been.  The first of the three documentaries, Paradise Lost, immediately captured the worldwide attention and made the arrested teens, who were dubbed the “West Memphis Three” a cause célčbre, which soon found actors like Johnny Depp and musicians like Eddie Vedder organizing benefits for the imprisoned youths. Another famous person put his money where his mouth was:  Director Peter Jackson of the enormously successful Lord of the Rings trilogy and his partner, screenwriter Fran Walsh, viewed the doc and immediately reached out to Echols’ determined bride, Lorri Davis, to offer their assistance in her efforts to save her husband’s life.  West of Memphis is an all-encompassing look at the murder, the trial and the aftermath as it currently stands, directed by documentarian Amy Berg and produced by Jackson and Walsh, who, up until the conditional release of the accused young men earlier this year, had kept their involvement with the case silent.  One might wonder what the necessity of this film is considering the intensity of Berlinger and Sinofsky’s investigations?  Co-produced by Damien Echols, West of Memphis makes itself distinguished not only by being the most up-to-date look at its subject, but by giving the viewer access to some of the most sensitive and germane facts and evidence yet seen.  

West of Memphis serves as a nutshell version of a long, strange nightmare experienced by both the families of the murdered boys and the accused teens.  We see the horrifying police photos of the children after their discovery in the creek (though as tastefully as possible).  We are offered some alternate theories; including the stunningly simple possibility that much of the physical trauma caused to the boys’ bodies may simply have been due to the wildlife in the creek where they were left.  Jackson and Walsh discuss their willingness to give Lorri Davis a blank check to do whatever was needed to gather evidence to prove that her husband and the other two suspects could not have been the murderers.  Besides their financial support, the New Zealand filmmakers went so far as to provide access to some of the top scientists in the DNA field to disprove Arkansas’ case.  They hired a tenacious detective whose taped investigations of the victims’ families unearth a chilling prospect for a new suspect.  Berg also highlights the pen-pal relationship between Davis and Echols that bloomed into a bond of love and strength grown over fifteen years of untiring resolve.  The disparate opinions of the three imprisoned men who are offered their freedom at the price of their innocence is a tense subtext to the story of their ordeal  and the resolution to their story is far from ideal, being released with their felony convictions still intact.  Besides this new and broader access, what Berg’s documentary does brilliantly is get deeper into the emotional toll the murders have had on the families of the victims; those three small boys whose sad story is often lost in the urgency to get the wrongly accused teens released.  The aimlessness of the now-adult younger sister of one of the boys is haunting because it’s plain that many of her troubles have the murder and the events around it at their root.  The mothers who still have their sons’ clothes hanging up in the closet nearly two decades after their deaths is heartbreaking.  West of Memphis gives us a sense of the emotional rollercoaster these women have endured, in not only the loss of their children, but being swept up in misdirected anger at the three wrongly accused teenagers only to discover the closure they hoped for was illusory and that as yet, no one has truly been brought to account for the horrible crime.  While the display of tireless dedication in the pursuit of exoneration for the West Memphis Three and the message of fighting against injustice no matter the odds are certainly inspiring, the movie is terribly sad.  Not only is the horrible unfairness of the waste of eighteen years of three young men’s lives inside a maximum-security prison, topped off with the Pyrrhic victory of the equivalent of a plea bargain that upholds their guilty status, but as it stands, the boys’ murderer, the person who committed this horrible, unthinkable thing, still walks free.

For its intelligent storytelling, wise use of access and evidence and mostly for its emotional depth, which separates the documentary from the other films on the murders in Robin Hood Hills, West of Memphis is required viewing.

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

December 14th, 2012

 

Hey all, as an added bonus, here’s our chat with the folks behind West of Memphis, subject/producer Damien Echols, director Amy Berg and producer/supporter Peter Jackson of Lord of the Rings fame.

Dig it!

 

West of Memphis New York Premiere Red Carpet Interviews

 

Producer Peter Jackson

 

The Lady Miz Diva: What was it originally that caught your eye about the case?  You live in New Zealand and between our two hemispheres there must be so many instances of unjust prosecution, why did you choose to get involved with the West Memphis Three?

Peter Jackson:  Fran and I saw the original Paradise Lost documentary in New Zealand in about 2004, 2005.  It was about 8 years after the convictions and we were horrified when we did a bit of research to find out that the guys were still in jail and the case was sort of in stasis.  Nothing was going on.  I think this made us angry.  It’s not that we want to be crusaders for American justice -- I mean we’re a couple of New Zealanders living a long way away -- but it just felt like these were three very poor kids with no resources to help defend themselves.  The state has everything on its side; it created a fictitious scenario which sounds like it’s something out of the Middle Ages, involving satanic worship and ritualistic murder.  The full moon was even involved according to the state’s story.  So, you kind of think, ‘Well, these guys need help,’ and you just want to help the underdog, really.  Then it became personal because we became friendly with Lorri {Davis, Echols’ wife} and it became a very personal thing at that point, {she} was just trying to save her husband’s life.

 

LMD:  Apparently you’d been involved with the West Memphis Three case for a long time without anyone knowing.  Why did you choose now to go public?

PJ:  We didn’t really have our involvement known until after Damien got out of jail and at that point I had started to talk about it on the internet a bit, and then the fact that we were working with Amy on the documentary, we started to talk about it, as well.  We kept our involvement secret for about seven or eight years.

 

Director Amy Berg

 

LMD:  Since there are the three previous documentaries on the West Memphis Three by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky that are so well known, what did you want your film to add to the story?

Amy Berg:  I think that’s such an interesting question.  When we were contacted there was a guy on death row and there were two men serving life sentences and there hadn’t been a documentary in almost 10 years.  We were wanting to see justice served, so, of course, the more the merrier.  Yes, we wanted justice and nothing was happening.  There was a film that came out 10 years earlier and they were still sitting in prison.

 

LMD:  What sort of interaction was there with Lorri, Damien’s wife? 

AB:  Regular, just regular interaction.

 

LMD:  Did she have any involvement in the way the film was presented at all?

AB:  Oh no, she was there for research.  I mean, she was there for me when I needed her.  It was definitely a film I was working on as the director.  I was following my own journey, but she was there for research, as were Fran and Pete, all the way.

 

LMD:  I understand that this might not be the final chapter of the story?

AB:  No.  They are still not free.  They have triple child murder convictions on their records right now.

 

Damien Echols

 

LMD:  Just speaking with Amy Berg, apparently this is not over.  There is still more to this case?

Damien Echols:  Well, for us, this has never been just about the documentary; it’s about the case.  The documentary is sort of a side effect of that.  We’re still pushing forward, doing everything we can.  We want to be exonerated.  We want the person in prison who belongs in prison and we want the people who did this to us held responsible.  So, this documentary is just a bigger part of that, part of the push to get those things done.

 

LMD:  I think there are a lot of people who might’ve looked at your case and thought, ‘Well, this wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t in the deep South,’ referring to being persecuted for your gothic looks and interest in magic, but I feel like this is one example of larger injustices.

DE:  Absolutely.  I mean, people say, “That would’ve never happened if you would have lived in New York,” and I say, “Well, tell that to the Central Park Five.”  It happens everywhere, it’s just easier for it to happen in some places and it happens more often in some places, but it is possible and it does happen everywhere in the US.

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

December 7th, 2012

 

For those who would like to help the West Memphis Three receive exoneration which will erase the child murder convictions from their records, please contact Arkansas District Attorney, Scott Ellington, 870-932-1513 to ask him to reopen the case.

 

 

 

 

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Photos

(Exclusive Photos by LMD

Stills Courtesy of  Sony Pictures Classics)

 

 

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