You might think the saga of the West Memphis Three was over—at least in movie terms. In August 2011, the railroaded trio accepted an Alford plea (claiming legal guilt while asserting innocence), freeing themselves after 18 years of wrongful imprisonment but allowing Arkansas, shamefully, to avoid lawsuits and further investigation. Last year, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, the third installment of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s celebrated HBO doc series on the case, received the trilogy’s only Oscar nomination.
Now here is West of Memphis, a new documentary, produced by WM3 member Damien Echols and his wife, Lorri Davis, as well as Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, who provided funding for DNA testing and other aid for Echols’s defense; like many, the Hobbit filmmakers were introduced to the case through Paradise Lost. Last January, responding to reports of a controversy over the competing productions, Berlinger told me he felt “profoundly grateful” for Jackson and Walsh’s involvement.
No one argues this material should be exclusive, and it hasn’t been: Berlinger says he’s collaborated with CNN, BBC and Discovery Channel segments on the WM3. A book on the mystery, Devil’s Knot, will soon be a star vehicle for Reese Witherspoon. What made the concurrently shot West of Memphis and Paradise Lost 3 a special instance was the filmmakers’ dispute over access—particularly to Pam Hobbs, the mother of one of the victims, who took on a heightened role as the two films investigated Terry Hobbs, her husband at the time of the 1993 murders. Though featured in the 1996 Paradise Lost, Pam Hobbs signed an exclusivity agreement with West of Memphis.
When I met with the new film’s director, Amy Berg, at the Toronto film fest in September, I asked her about the deal. She emphasized the scope and sensitivity of the material. “It’s like if I was employing a researcher on my film, I wouldn’t want them to go work on another film about the same subject after spending all that time and energy on research,” Berg says. She added that Paradise Lost 3 had exclusivity deals with Terry Hobbs and Mark Byers, the stepfather of another of the victims.
Reached by e-mail in London last week, Berlinger disputed that characterization, forwarding correspondence with Berg and others to confirm his production was blocked from Pam Hobbs before it made a deal with Terry Hobbs—an action only necessary, Berlinger says, to prevent the loss of another subject. Berg, advocating a fresh presentation of new evidence, notes “it had been 11 years since the last film had come out,” though she acknowledges in the e-mails that Paradise Lost 3 was under way. Berlinger points to footage in his movie shot in 2005 and especially 2007, long before West of Memphis and three years before Berg described her project to him as a “ ‘possible’ film.”
All of which makes the blocking of access—and West of Memphis’s scant acknowledgment of Paradise Lost’s existence—seem extremely ungracious. Still, the controversy shouldn’t overshadow Echols, who visited Chicago in November. I was set to meet him in Toronto, but with a conviction still on his record, he was held up at the border.
“I think I packed and unpacked, like, four times, not knowing if I was going to get in or not,” Echols says. “And when we did finally get in, we had to sit in customs for quite a while. I can’t even remember how long it was. This case still has roots that reach into so many aspects of our lives.”
It wasn’t his first trip to Chicago since getting out, but film and book tours have taken him to many cities for the first time. “It’s really weird because even before I went in, I had never seen a real city in my life. As soon as I get out, we go to New York, like, the city. When I went to L.A., I was expecting to see New York, only sunny with palm trees.”
Incredibly, if not surprisingly, he hasn’t seen most of the trilogy that drew worldwide attention to his case. “Me, Jason [Baldwin] and Jessie [Misskelley] all went to the premiere of Paradise Lost 3, but I had just gotten out of prison, and for the first two or three months I was out, I was in such a deep state of shock and trauma that I couldn’t take in much of anything,” he says. “I saw maybe 15 minutes of the first one, I saw none of the second one. It’s just too painful. The only thing to compare it to is when Vietnam vets talk about having flashbacks.”
Yet as a producer on West of Memphis, he says, he’s able to tell his story in his way, potentially with a degree of nuance he wonders if the earlier films lacked. “This isn’t anyone’s project. This is my life,” he says. “This is my life story that I’m finally getting to tell.”
West of Memphis opens Friday 18 at the Music Box and Century 12 Evanston/CinéArts 6.