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Power of a light

Documentaries have the power to change lives, but few of them ever do, at least in measurable ways. “Fahrenheit 9/11" smashed box-office records, but it did little to stem George W. Bush’s march toward a second presidential term, and in spite of its Oscar win, it’s hard to credit “An Inconvenient Truth” with any shift in environmental policy. But without the “Paradise Lost” documentaries, there’s a good chance two men would still be behind bars in an Arkansas prison, and a third might have been put to death by now.

Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr. were arrested in 1993 for the murders of three 8-year-old boys in West Memphis, Ark. As detailed in 1996’s “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills,” the three men, then teenagers, drew the authorities’ attention because they stood out in their impoverished rural community, especially Echols, with his long hair, black clothing and his devotion to heavy-metal bands that sometimes trafficked in macabre imagery. That and some tenuous circumstantial evidence was enough for the authorities to proceed with a theory that Echols and his cohorts were Satanists who had butchered the young boys in an occult ritual, which got Baldwin and Misskelley locked up for life and landed Echols on death row. But for Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, that might have been it.

“If they wouldn’t have been there in the beginning to get the trial on film, there’s every chance the case would have sunk into obscurity and people would have forgotten about it over time,” said Echols at a news conference preceding the New York Film Festival premiere of “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory” in September. “It was the first documentary that made people start noticing [our case].”

Berlinger and Sinofsky, who met while working at Maysles Films, the company run by nonfiction pioneers Albert and David Maysles, traveled to West Memphis at the behest of HBO Documentary Films President Sheila Nevins to cover what they thought would be a story about small-town kids gone horribly awry. “We thought we were making a film about guilty teenagers,” Berlinger recalled, “kind of a real-life ‘River’s Edge.’ ” But even though investigators eventually extracted a confession from Misskelley, whose IQ placed him just on the cusp of mental retardation, it became apparent that the prosecution’s case rested heavily on exploiting the supposed links between anti-conformist attitudes and deviant behavior.

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Beginning with the members of Metallica, who uncharacteristically allowed their songs to be used in the “Paradise Lost” films, the cause of the West Memphis Three (as they came to be known) was taken to heart by such high-profile figures as Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and the Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Maines, as well as many other, less famous figures who identified with being stigmatized for failing to fit in. Although Berlinger and Sinofsky weren’t officially part of Save the West Memphis Three, the way their film helped galvanize the movement profoundly affected the decision to keep following the case, as well as the form of the films that followed.

Change in attitude

“If we’d talked 20 years ago, I would have told you I’m a storyteller first, a journalist second, and the advocacy part I don’t really care about,” Berlinger said. “But I’ve come to have a more complex, nuanced view. I still think you need to be a storyteller because the best-intentioned advocacy films that don’t have a character or a story arc aren’t going to be seen. I’ve gone from being 30 to being 50 over the course of these films, and I think it really represents a maturing, a realization that advocacy and storytelling are both important.” Berlinger concedes that 2000’s “Paradise Lost 2: Revelations” was “advocacy in search of a story.” But with the third film, he and Sinofsky achieve a more graceful balance between agenda and artistry.

The drawn-out nature of the appeals process doesn’t lend itself naturally to drama, which is one reason for the long gap between films.

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But “Purgatory” has a number of bombshells that will be especially shocking to those who’ve followed the case all along. Part of the prosecution’s argument focused on parallel cuts made to the victim’s bodies, supposedly left by a serrated knife, and the fact that one of the boys had been castrated, lending credence to the notion of a Satanic ritual.

But in the third film, defense experts argue that both sets of injuries occurred postmortem, after the boys’ bodies were dumped in the woods. A substantial part of “Revelations” focused on the fact that John Mark Byers, the adoptive father of one of the victims, owned a knife similar to that thought to have been used in the crime, but it now seems that no knife was used at all.

“As a truth teller, as well as a storyteller, it troubles me a little bit the things we didn’t think were relevant to put in the first two films that now are in the third film,” Berlinger said, “even though I find it fascinating.” Although “Purgatory” naturally overlaps with portions of the first two films, Berlinger and Sinofsky made sure to use alternate footage whenever possible to avoid redundancy. (The time span between the first and third films is subtly underlined every time the directors cut to a scratchy 16-millimeter clip.) In poring over their old material, the filmmakers were in a sense investigating themselves, looking for details to which earlier prejudices might have blinded them. “We’re in it because we’re telling an injustice story,” Berlinger said. “But leaving that aside just for a minute, what a fascinating artistic opportunity to go back and use your own archival footage to reexamine a story.”

Plea deal

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In August, after they’d completed what they thought was their final cut, Berlinger and Sinofsky were compelled to make a final modification to “Purgatory” when, after 18 years in prison, Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley were set free via a legal maneuver known as an Alford plea, which allowed the three to maintain their innocence while simultaneously acknowledging the state had enough evidence to convict them. “Purgatory’s” broadcast had initially been timed to coincide with hearings on the new evidence detailed in the film, but the state was sufficiently concerned about being able to make its case that it cut a deal instead. So rather than ending with its subjects behind bars, the series concludes with an epilogue in which the West Memphis Three finally walk free.

Echols, Baldwin, Misskelley are still convicted murderers who’ve spent more than half of their lives behind bars; Baldwin said he had to relearn how to eat with a fork and get the hang of walking without chains on his legs. But “Purgatory’s” epilogue provides a hard-earned ending to an epic documentary project that has no real equivalent in the medium’s history.

“It’s a great story,” Sinofsky said. “It would have been great if it were fiction and none of this had happened. But it did.”

calendar@latimes.com

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