Jul 2, 2010

24 FPS Top 100 Films: No. 77

Because I believe this film to be such important viewing there is a link to part 1 of the whole first film if you click the title below.

DIR: Joe Berlinger / Bruce Sinofsky

Why are they on the list?
When they went to West Memphis, Arkansas in 1993 Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky expected to be making a film about the murder trial of three guilty young men, who had killed three little boys. What they emerged with, as the case unfolded, was both a very different film to the one they had envisioned and a story they continue to follow (Paradise Lost 3 has been in the works for some time) up to the present day.

I can’t pretend to be an unbiased observer on these films, I saw it knowing the facts of the case, and already believing in the innocence of the West Memphis Three (as the convicted Jason Baldwin, Jessie Misskelley and Damien Echols would come to be known), but taking a step back from the case and just looking at them as films these are two truly outstanding (and very different) documentaries.

One of the most astounding things about the first film is the sheer amount of access that Berlinger and Sinofsky got. They had two camera positions in court, access to all six families (the families of the three accused and the three victims), access to the accused for interviews, and access to strategy meetings with all defence counsels and with the prosecution. Only the jury remains offscreen. The footage is absolutely riveting from start to finish, and taken as a whole this is probably the finest filmed document of a single murder case.

The first film is also scrupulously even handed. Though Berlinger and Sinofsky have since said that as the process of making the film went on they became increasingly convinced that the West Memphis Three were innocent. Despite that belief they are careful, during the progress of the court case, to include moments where the prosecution scores a point alongside the moments when the defence does well, and to show the moments when both cases go wrong as well. Though there’s never a great deal of doubt where the filmmakers sympathies lie the film doesn’t tell you what to believe. It’s a delicate balance, and well struck.

It’s also worth noting that the editing in both films is great, and that the directors have an innate sense of drama, they move the story along at a fair clip, doling out revelations regularly, but always giving things enough time to have weight. The first film is careful to be fair to all its participants, for example John Mark Byers, the father of one of the victims, does come across as a rather unbalanced, and possibly dangerous, character, but the film also shows, warts and all, Damien Echols’ vanity, and his enjoyment of the spotlight his murder trial casts on him.

Though it asks some uncomfortable questions of Echols (especially about the way he behaved at trial) Revelations: Paradise Lost 2 is a very different film. Berlinger and Sinofsky threw out the old philosophy of showing everyone scoring points and instead made a full assault advocacy film. Revelations is a screaming polemic, and a powerful one at that. Its focus is split between Echols’ first appeal, the support group that the first film inspired and John Mark Byers, then the prime suspect for the Free the WM3 movement (the focus has now moved on from him, thanks to new forensic evidence). Byers is still a fascinating character; equal parts genial and terrifying, a brittle man seemingly made of fire and brimstone, and he does some hypnotically odd, and often disturbing, things during Revelations. On its own Revelations is a weaker film than Paradise Lost, but taken together the two make up both the definitive insight into this case and one of the greatest, most enraged, polemical pieces of cinema ever.

Standout Scenes
Prosecution strategy meeting
In a meeting with the victims parents, the prosecutor lays out his laughably thin case against Jason Baldwin and Damien Echols, and rates his chances of winning the case at 50/50.

Cross examining the occult ‘expert’
The defence takes apart the prosecution’s expert witness, exposing him as a charlatan with a degree from a mail order diploma farm, who never took a class to get his doctorate.

Damien’s testimony
Damien takes the stand, and utterly fails to help himself.

Talking to Damien
From his death row cell, Damien has a tearful phone call with his Mother.

Byers’ lie detector test
“I knew I was innocent”, says Byers, on passing this test.

Burning the three
In the single most disturbing scene in the film, John Mark Byers burns the WM3 in effigy.

If you want to read more about the case of the West Memphis 3 you can do so by going to WM3.ORG, where you can also give money to the defence fund.


  1. I've not seen these although i've long wanted to. Cheers for reminding me of them. Think i'll check them out now. Good review btw.

  2. I have wanted to see these for a long time, but cannot find them at all :(

  3. Want to know the very latest case news?
    Visit the internet home of John Mark Byers.