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NYFF 2011: ‘Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory’ has an impassioned energy that raises it far above the average advocacy documentary

Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory

Directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky

2011, USA

The cameras and filmmakers are plainly visible in Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, the third, and likely last, documentary on the West Memphis Three from Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. The two previous Paradise Lost films have been a major driving force in galvanizing the movement that has supported Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley since they were convicted of the horrific murders of three young boys in 1993. The documentary itself has become a part of the story, and here the cameras turn on the two filmmakers and their crew, without whom it is safe to say that new evidence would not have come to light that led to the three men being released form prison after 18 years and 78 days.

Paradise 3 begins by taking us back to the murders in the Robin Hood Hills area of West Memphis, Arkansas, where the battered, desecrated bodies of Stevie Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Beyers were found next to a creek bed. We move through the trial of Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley, in which the men (then still teenagers) were first suspected of satanic activity because they wore black and listened to heavy metal, and then convicted in a panic on no physical evidence and a false confession by Misskelley (who is mentally disabled) given under severe duress.

The progressing of time is marked by the changing formats and quality of Berlinger and Sinofsky’s footage, which they have been shooting almost on and off since the initial arrests. But the most startling images of just how long this case has been going on are of the Three themselves. Each has the same face as they did when they were teens, but that face now sits uncomfortably on a middle-aged body that has been extra worn by prison. “It’s strange to be told that I have arthritis or see my hairline receding, “ Echols says. “In my mind I’m still the same as the day I came in.”

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The film lacks the visual formalism of Errol Morris, but it has a wooly, impassioned energy that raises it far above the average advocacy documentary. It’s also brilliantly structured, and cut together to make the numerous depositions and explanations of the rules of evidence coherent, even riveting. The film guides us through the wealth of new forensic findings, as well as exploring other possible suspects, most notably Terry Hobbes, the stepfather of Stevie Branch, who was likely the last person to see the three little boys alive. Most amazing, though, is the radical change that John Michael Beyers has undergone. In the first film, Beyers, the father of Christopher, was almost psychotically consumed with hate for the West Memphis Three, a hate that was further inflamed when Echols publically accused him of committing the murders (a possible, but since discredited, murder weapon was found in his possession). But Beyers is now one of the Three’s biggest advocates. Convinced by DNA testing, he is now as fanatical about their innocence as he was their guilt. “It was hard to admit that I was wrong,” Beyers says, “But I was wrong.”

If only the state of Arkansas could make such an admission. After the State Supreme Court finally granted an evidentiary hearing to consider the new findings – a hearing that would have almost certainly led to a new trial and an acquittal – prosecutors and a trial judge offered the Three the chance to enter an Alfred Plea, under which the men would enter guilty pleas, but be allowed to maintain their innocence and be released with time served. It is an abhorrent tactic that insulates the state from having to admit that they took away three more young lives on top of those three that were murdered. Not all of the Three were eager to accept the plea. Jesse Baldwin says he was absolutely against it, but went along for Damien Echols’s sake, who was still on death row at the time they were released. One of the final images of the film is of the two men hugging, and it is remarkable that they can still feel any love at all after what they have been through. I freely admit I teared up as Metallica played over the credits.

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Louis Godfrey

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