Even in a series that spans 18 years, a deus ex machina can emerge. One week before completing Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, the third installment of their documentary trilogy on the West Memphis Three, directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky received a tip that something—“as big as it gets”—would happen three days later in Arkansas. That could only mean two things: execution or, more likely, exoneration.
“On the airplane going down, I had this range of emotions from jubilation to very selfish filmmaker concerns, specifically like, ‘Oh, my God, we just finished a film called Purgatory. What are we going to do about the title?’ ” Berlinger says. “Of course, we didn’t know about the Alford plea.”
On August 19, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jesse Misskelley, convicted in 1994 of the West Memphis murders of three boys, entered a rare plea that allowed them to claim legal guilt while asserting their innocence, admitting they were pleading that way only to leave prison. Their release was greeted with everything from elation to outrage. (The maneuver effectively shielded the state from liability.) Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996) is widely credited with drawing attention to the case, in which the defendants, then goth teens, were railroaded by a superstitious community on scant evidence.
Calling from his car as he drove from Westchester, New York, to Manhattan, where he was putting the finishing touches on a documentary on Paul Simon, Berlinger describes the saga’s end as bittersweet. “Wrong-man cases take 20 years to wind through the system,” he notes. “However, when it was in the state’s interest to avoid embarrassment, that Alford plea was literally cooked up, negotiated, signed, sealed and delivered in less than two weeks.” He points out that the DNA statute Echols used to argue for a new trial passed in 2001; it took a decade for the state’s Supreme Court to call for an evidentiary hearing, slated for December 2011. Indeed, Purgatory had been scheduled to premiere in November, to bring attention to that development. Berlinger heard the state was concerned about the negative publicity.
The director marvels at how the media climate has changed. “In 2011, if the case were to have taken place, we would never have gotten the access we got back then,” Berlinger says. “The 24-hour news cycle, the way we know it today, hadn’t kicked in. [Neither had] the O.J. trial, which was a watershed event of ‘anything negative like that happens and satellite trucks from around the world show up.’ It was a different world that led to us getting kind of unprecedented access.”
Sinofsky, calling from his home in Montclair, New Jersey, recalled the hard work of persuading families to appear. “It took time,” he explains. “If it was just as simple as stopping by their home to say hello or taking them out to lunch, we did it.” At that early stage, he adds, they had gone to Arkansas to make a film about men they believed to be guilty.
But they quickly came to the conclusion that the trials weren’t fair, and that Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley were innocent. Their feelings on other suspects have fluctuated. Paradise Lost 2: Revelations (2000) investigates leads that Paradise Lost 3 suggests were incorrect. “Artistically, I find the films very satisfying,” Berlinger says. “But it’s also disturbing to me that theories have changed, and what felt compelling in 2000 has proven to be unreliable. What does that tell us about the nature of truth and the reliability of documentary making?”
The directors will make supplementary material available on HBO on Demand. And now, they’re hardly the only filmmakers on the case: Atom Egoyan is adapting a book on the WM3, and Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, who have credited Paradise Lost with introducing them to the material, have produced yet another documentary on the investigations, working with Echols and his wife, Lorri. It premieres at Sundance this month.
That competition, and exclusivity agreements, restricted the directors’ access on Paradise Lost 3, Berlinger admits. “I still feel how profoundly grateful everyone should be to Peter and Fran for funding a lot of the investigation [involvement first reported on August 18],” he says. “My only quibble is that Peter Jackson at the time made a decision to block us from certain characters that we had introduced them to through our films. I questioned that action on a filmmaker-to-filmmaker basis.”
Even so, the trilogy has achieved a stature that ranks it among the great achievements in nonfiction filmmaking. The new movie is shortlisted for an Oscar.
And Paradise Lost 4? Sinofsky believes most documentary subjects hit a point where they shouldn’t be filmed. “Would it be interesting to come back four or five years from now and see where Damien and Jason and Jesse are in their lives?” he says. “I think it would be. I will continue to monitor them and to talk to them. It’s not like I had a speed-dial for them when they were in jail.”
Berlinger also feels a sense of closure. “Now that they’re out of prison, I feel like our work is done and that the machine has taken on a life of its own,” he says. “I don’t think there can be enough stories of this to remind us of the profound injustice.”
Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory plays on HBO Thursday 12 and will be available through HBO on Demand Friday 13.