TORONTO -- Amid the endless waves of hoopla and hype at a festival like the one that has taken over the city of Toronto, it’s sometimes easy to forget the power of a bona-fide movie star. And then, you encounter Johnny Depp.
Late Saturday afternoon, a huge crowd waited outside the Ryerson Theatre for the arrival of Depp, who was appearing in support of the documentary “West of Memphis.” The film centers on three teenagers who were convicted of murdering three 8-year-old boys in Arkansas and spent 17 years in prison for the crimes before being released last year; of course, the so-called West Memphis Three already were the subject of a series of documentaries that transformed them into figures of outsider resistance and social injustice.
Such was the level of anticipation for Depp, that when Natalie Maines, a member of the Dixie Chicks, stepped out of her car and onto the red carpet no one seemed to much notice. Once Depp arrived it was pandemonium, voices screaming and flashbulbs popping. As the crowd made its way into the auditorium, the line snaked around the red carpet press area, and numerous women shrieked like teeny-boppers for the Oscar-nominated actor.
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Damien Echols, one of the West Memphis Three, was initially denied a visa to enter Canada from the U.S. but due to the intervention of Toronto International Film Festival officials was able to attend. Freed last summer in an unusual legal maneuver -- one that saw the three plead guilty to charges while still proclaiming their innocence -- Echols initially also entered the theater unnoticed. After a few minutes, audience members began to recognize him, and a steady stream of people came by for an autograph, a photo or simply to shake his hand and wish him well.
“West of Memphis” was produced by the Oscar-winning team of Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, who enlisted filmmaker Amy Berg, herself an Oscar nominee for the documentary “Deliver Us From Evil,” to make their own film about the case and the ongoing investigation into the real killer or killers.
“This film is more than a film,” Berg said while introducing “West of Memphis” on Saturday. “It’s a movement. It’s a very passionate, personal story.”
It is easy for longtime fans of the “Paradise Lost” series, the earlier documentaries made by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky that covered the case so exhaustively over the course of three movies, to feel some confusion over why “West of Memphis” exists. Yet in a videotaped introduction, Jackson, from New Zealand, addressed the purpose of this new project.
“In many respects, we regard this movie as a work in progress,” Jackson said. “What you’ll see tonight is finished, but it’s not an ending that anybody likes, it’s not an ending that brings justice to this case in any form. There is no justice for three wrongfully convicted men and equally importantly there is no justice for the three murdered little boys and their families. The state of Arkansas has been willful in the way it is just trying to stick its head in the sand.
“Hopefully, if this film can do anything at all it is to publicly and politically embarrass the people in Arkansas,” Jackson added, "all of whom are much more interested in getting votes and getting elected than they are in justice. I’m hoping the film will go some way toward exoneration for the three wrongfully convicted men and justice for the three little boys.”
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