West of Memphis

TIFF 2012: West of Memphis – Documentary Review

Director: Amy Berg
Screenplay: Billy McMillin & Amy Berg
Starring: Jason Baldwin, Damien Wayne Echols and Jessie Misskelley
Runtime: 147 minutes
TIFF 2012 Programme: Mavericks

After Joe Belinger and Bruce Sikonofsky’s three-part documentary Paradise Lost, director Amy Berg brings another interesting documentary about the Memphis 3 into the mix. The story of the West Memphis 3 (WM3) became well-known in the U.S.A. in the mid-1990’s, when three young men – Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, Jess Misskelley – were wrongfully accused of killing three small boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. The three teenagers were singled out by the police department as the only possible suspects. Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley were arrested, judged and found guilty. They were imprisoned and spent eighteen years in jail for a crime they did not commit.

West of Memphis begins by recounting the story of the crime, which occurred in 1993. It follows the case right into the courthouse, where we see the teenagers looking rather indifferent as to what is going on. Throughout the proceedings, the killings are described as satanic rituals. Not many asked if there were any other reasons for the killings. Since the three teenagers ‘fit the part’, the court and many in their community assumed they were guilty. From there, we fast forward to several years later, when people are wondering if the right men are in jail. More and more people begin to wonder if the Memphis 3 were in fact innocent. One of these people was Lorri Davis, who saw the Paradise Lost films and began to correspond with Echols, eventually becoming his wife.

West of Memphis

In 2005, Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh begin to communicate with Lorri, offering their help with trying to look into the case and do something to help these young men. By the following year, Jackson and Walsh begin to work with a new defense team, aiding them with their investigation. In 2010, Eddie Vedder and other high profile celebrities hold a benefit concert in support of the West Memphis 3. By August of 2011, the WM3 submit the Alford Plea, in which they can assert their innocence while pleading guilty because it’s in their best interest. The pleas were accepted and Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley were released from jail. As we go through the chronology in the film, Berg also tries to highlight that someone else, closer to the children, may have been in fact the killer. It’s clear this is the theory of the defense team and one that Echols and others also believe. Yet, it’s difficult to accept it as the only other suspect in this very convoluted case.

Although, we see most of this in the film. The majority of it focuses on Damien Echols’ story, his time in jail, and his relationship with Lorri. As Echols and Davis shared in the Q&A period post-screening, this was their chance to share ‘their’ story. Echols said, this was the “first time we got to participate in our own story. It made it extremely special to both of us… This is far more personal to us than anything else done so far.”

West of Memphis

At the screening, Amy Berg was joined by Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Maines and Johnny Depp, who were attending TIFF as friends of Damien and Lorri’s but also in support of the WM3 and their cause. Maines shared how she still believes the “right thing will be done in this case. I have not lost cause.” For his part, Depp said that it’s “easy to watch the documentary and say it’s horrible… but the thing to do is support these three innocent men. Let’s move towards full exoneration for this fellas.” Clearly Berg, Jackson and Walsh are not the only who truly believe the WM3 deserve a full pardon, so they may try to move on with their lives. The film is definitely informative, and will add to the already existing conversation about the West Memphis 3.

Photo Credit: Toronto International Film Festival

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