Paradise Lost/West of Memphis Review : Docs on the spot
So you want to see a crime doc? Then read on.
Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996)
Paradise Lost is an investigative piece on the brutal murder of three ten year old boys in West Memphis. Directed by Filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, Paradise Lost plunges the viewer into West Memphis, Arkansas and their desperate search for the killer. Aided no doubt by Berlingers schooling at Colgate University and Sinofsky's education at Tisch School for the Arts butressed by his work as Senior editor for Maysles films the duo expertly searches for answers to the 1993 murders. Given seemingly unlimited access, the pair are allowed entry into all ascpects of the trial, the town, and all environs. Decisions in editing and depictions of areas/subjects seem to be without judgement perhaps in an attempt for the viewers to try to become neutral observers as well.
What was the case? Simply put in a bayou the body's of three innocent boys were found "hogtied" and possibly sexually assaulted. Who could be blamed? The outright horror of the crime, combined with a very rural and seemingly insular society, leave little surprise that the possiblity of Devil worship arises. As this is an economically struggling religious town it should come as little surprise. Who then should become the victims but teens that stand out. A hunch that led to the arrest of three teens who were staunch nonconformists. How could they do this? With little evidence how could their arrests have held up?
Well they based it all on the forced testimony of one of the culprits whose I.Q. was in the seventies. In other words, he was borderline mentally retarded. To complicate things however, Berlinger and Sinofsky do an excellent job of portraying the rage and frustration of the parents. Also the innocence of the boys is not helped by the oldest of the group, Damien Wayne Echols whose
long hair, penchant for dressing in black, heavy metal, Wicca, and living up to the worst ideal of a community caught in crisis. While the filmmakers do strive to maintain a balance of depicting what was occurring while at the same time pointing to weaknesses in the states case. They do not back away from the passions of a society that needs to somehow find quilt, and even more specifically these defendants quilt as it would explain and support their world view. Similar to Jesus Camp the filmmakers make no attempt to pass judgement, merely to try to show what was going on. In this film nothing is trivialized. The rough and raw footage of their cinema verite approach brings a reality to an engrossed viewer who has no idea how the trail will turn until the verdict is delivered. The popularity of this film combined with a search for answers demanded by the views led to two following films, Paradise Lost: Revelations, and Paradise Lost: Purgatory. While Revelations depicts the aftermath of the trial, Purgatory transforms the filmmakers into more of an advocate role where they try to focus's on who the guilty party might be. But at the end of this series, the defendants are still imprisioned. So what is to be done? Send a call to middle earth.
West of Memphis (2012)
At first glance, then at second, West of Memphis is a totally different film. Their are two reasons for this. The first is that it has a different director: Amy Berg. She was well prepared as she had already received acclaim for her documentary, Deliver us from Evil. A gut churning documentary about a Catholic priest whose gentle demeanor belies the fact that he molested numerous child parishioners. The second reason is that this project was funded by Peter Jackson.
Therefore it should come as little surprise that the look and feel of this film is quite different. As this film was produced after it was all done, the differences are great. While in Paradise Lost the viewer, in their search for truth seems to reflect the search by the filmmakers. In this film, not only does it have the distance of sixteen years, but it also has a seemingly unlimited access to money.
What does this all mean? It means the gritty reality of Paradise Lost is gone. Sure some of the stuff has a cinema verite feel, but it is Hollywood cinema verite. It is beautiful, the people are beautiful, and similar to J.J Abrams films... we get solar flares in space. Don't get me wrong... it looks good. Indeed if one wants to know what the case is all about and how it ends, this might be the film to watch. Merely due to style, it should come as little surprise that Berg's film becomes an advocacy piece. Rather than relying on the subtle inference of Paradise Lost, Berg does not hesitate to guide her viewers.
Perhaps this stance is what was needed. As told, sixteen years had passed and the three were still in jail. The bravado of the teens is gone. They merely want out. With the attention however, it should come as little surprise that a litany of Hollywood stars assemble in their defense. Artists ranging from Henry Rollins, Eddie Vender, and even the Dixie Chicks become involved in pleas for clemency. Twists appear when DNA evidence is introduced that definitely cast overwhelming doubt on the guilt of the three accused. It is interesting to see how the lives of the three have progressed since their incarceration. While there is some mystery it doesn't match the lack of true clarity of the Paradise Lost trilogy. However all the rage and fuming anger one might expect of an advocacy film is definitely present. So in the end what do I have to say? For the big picture see West of Memphis. To relish in the small and the intimacy it provides, see Paradise Lost.