West Memphis 3 outcome ‘bittersweet,’ filmmaker says
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Documentary filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s campaign to help win the freedom of the so-called West Memphis 3 ended in triumph Friday, as the trio of Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols and Jessie Misskelly Jr. were set free after 18 years behind bars. Now the directors are facing a new challenge: recutting their new film ‘Paradise Lost: Purgatory,’ in time for the fall festival circuit.
In an interview with 24 Frames, Berlinger said he’d decided not to try to have a new version ready for the film’s world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, which begins Sept. 8.
‘It’s not simply a matter of just tacking on a scene; there needs to be editing and scoring. It’s a several-week process,’ he said of the movie, which chronicles the latest legal twists and turns in the case of the murder of three 8-year-old Arkansas boys. ‘We spent literally 18 years on this, and I want to make sure we do it right. I don’t want to rush it.’
Instead, the movie Toronto festival-goers will see will end where it currently does — at an Arkansas Supreme Court evidentiary hearing last year that began to turn the tide in favor of the three men — with Berlinger and Sinofsky simply discussing the ending in person at the screening. In the meantime, the filmmakers will work to have a new cut — what Berlinger calls ‘the definitive version’ — for a New York Film Festival screening in mid-October.
That cut, which will include an added scene or two from today’s events ‘but just a little bit more, not 10 or 15 minutes or anything like that,’ according to Berlinger, will air on HBO in January.
Reached by text message, Toronto film fest co-director Cameron Bailey said that he and festival organizers were working through their own plans. ‘We’re still absorbing the news, so [it’s] too soon to say if our plans for presenting the film will change,’ Bailey said, adding, ‘We’re just glad people will get a chance to see the film in Toronto and to talk about these amazing developments.’
Since they first chronicled the West Memphis 3’s arrests and convictions in the HBO-produced ‘Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills,’ Berlinger and Sinofsky have endeavored to bring continued national attention to the case. Essentially, they argued, the trio were the subject of a small-town witch hunt, convicted on the basis of little direct evidence and possibly coerced confessions.
The pair’s follow-up HBO film, 2000’s ‘Paradise Lost 2: Revelations,’ continued to recruit a number of high-profile celebrities to the cause; today, when the trio was ordered released after entering guilty pleas in exchange for a sentence equal to time served, musicians Eddie Vedder and Natalie Maines were on hand.
If those who followed the case casually were taken aback by the unexpected coda on Friday, Berlinger said they shouldn’t feel alone.
‘We were literally in the edit room doing a final score and a final mix in preparation when we started to get word for the first time last week that a deal was being suggested,’ Berlinger said, noting that until just a few days ago he thought it would take ‘at least another year, and possibly a new trial,’ before the West Memphis 3 were set free. When Berlinger and Sinofsky did hear that a deal was in the offing, they flew to Jonesboro, Ark., for the hearing, their cameras in tow.
Berlinger got some shooting time with his subjects on Friday but was not allowed to film in the courtroom, which was restricted. In fact, when he tried to power up his camera in the courtroom in preparation for shooting a news conference, a state trooper stopped him and called him out to the judge. ‘I couldn’t believe the irony. The West Memphis 3 were going free and I was going to spend the night in an Arkansas jail,’ Berlinger said. (He eventually persuaded the judge he was not actually shooting in the courtroom.)
Berlinger said he and Sinofsky had planned to continue their crusading brand of filmmaking before today’s events. ‘We’re delighted we’re not making a fourth film, which we were preparing to do,’ Berlinger said.
But he said the moment was’ bittersweet,’ in part because the three had to plead guilty instead of receiving a full exoneration he believed they deserved. And in the meantime, he noted, nearly two decades of their lives had been lost.
‘My daughter is 17,’ he said. ‘And every time she went through a landmark — her first steps, middle school, high school, first boyfriend — I thought of Damien Echols rotting in prison.’
West Memphis Three are freed after 18 years behind bars
— Steven Zeitchik and Gina McIntyre