West of Memphis
Directed by Amy Berg
Featuring: Jessie Misskelley, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, Lorri Davis, Terry Branch, Eddie Vedder, Peter Jackson
Sony Pictures Classics
Rated R | 147 Minutes
Release Date: March 8, 2013
Directed by Amy Berg, West of Memphis is a documentary about the West Memphis Three – Jessie Misskelley, Damien Echols, and Jason Baldwin – three teenagers who were arrested in 1994 for the murders of three 8-year old children: Christopher Byers, Steven Branch, and Michael Moore.
The West Memphis Three were tried and convicted and remained in prison for more than 18 years. Berg’s film (produced by Fran Walsh and Peter Jackson) focuses on Terry Hobbs, stepfather of Stevie Branch, one of the victims of the 1993 crime, as a potential suspect due to newfound DNA evidence linking him to the crime.
West of Memphis is another miscarriage-of-justice documentary, similar to The Central Park Five by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon. The film chronicles the history of the imprisoned men all the way up to their eventual release through interviews conducted with lawyers, judges, journalists, family members, witnesses, and the West Memphis Three themselves. There are also interviews with Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and other WM3 supporters like Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder who have been following the case for two decades.
The aim of Berg’s documentary is to simultaneously exonerate the West Memphis Three and condemn Terry Hobbs. Misskelly, Echols, and Baldwin are seen as the victims of a witch hunt in bible-belt Arkansas, convicted in the aftermath of the ’80s “Satanic Panic.”
The filmmakers decide what evidence the audience gets to see, and how it should be interpreted, using suggestive editing and dramatic music to convey their viewpoint clearly. The film is entirely effective (including several graphic images of the dead boys), yet I’m left wondering if this manipulated mixture of facts and speculation is enough to prove Hobbs guilty? Would any of this hold up in court?
Three HBO documentaries: Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996), Paradise Lost 2: Revelations (2000), and Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (2011), have covered the WM3’s story in full detail, and played a substantial role in generating publicity, awareness, and support for the innocence of the three men – whereas West of Memphis feels like a summary of those events with, perhaps, too much conjecture and speculation to be considered a wholly accurate document.
If you’ve followed the West Memphis Three case you’re aware that Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley were released from prison on August 19, 2011 as part of a plea deal – a legal loophole in which “no contest” pleas are entered but innocence of the crime is maintained. Berg’s film works best when it focuses on the West Memphis Three and proving their innocence, instead of constructing a motive for Terry Hobbs to kill his son and two other children. There’s only one witness allowed to speak in support of Hobbs – his sister, Cindy. “I feel like my brother’s getting a bad rap,” Cindy says in her limited amount of screen time, “and somebody needs to say something.”
Twenty years ago, it was Misskelly, Echols, and Baldwin who got the bad rap – labeled as satanic teenagers performing strange occult rituals in the woods, skinning animals and sacrificing children to goat-headed demons. With the help of some powerful allies, they were able to change the hearts and minds of their accusers and prove their innocence — while still pleading no contest to their charges. Now Hobbs is seen as the murderer – guilty or not – but unless he’s taken to trial, we’ll never really know the truth of what happened in West Memphis, Arkansas – but that doesn’t stop the filmmakers from theorizing and assuming unknowns as facts.
Of course, that is the very nature of documentary. Documentaries are not broadcast news packages – that are not works of objective journalism – and while they can be incredibly insightful and informative, they may often be manipulative or recreate events for dramatic effect. You have to be mindful of these facts when watching a doc like West of Memphis – especially when millionaire producers and outspoken supporters are involved in the structure of the story being told.
There’s a certain amount of irony in watching a documentary about the victims of a miscarriage of justice who, in turn, do a lot of finger-pointing at someone who could also be getting ‘a bad rap.’ I feel for Misskelly, Echols, and Baldwin – three boys who grew up in prison – spending 18 years and 78 days behind bars.
I’m heartbroken by the murder of three eight-year-old boys who never got a chance to grow up – and yes, I am entirely suspicious of Terry Hobbs, but only one wrong here has been righted here. The West Memphis Three are free – but because they accepted a plea deal (and accepted a guilty verdict while maintaining innocence), convicting anyone else will be problematic. The real killer is out there somewhere, and that is the greatest injustice of them all.
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