Paradise Lost – tragedy, entrapment, trilogy

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Release: June 10 1996

Director: Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky

My first introduction to the West Memphis Three (WM3) must have been around the time they were finally released. I remember some sort of controversy in the news that one of the boys convicted (Damien Echols) was either now living in New Zealand, or spending some kind of extended holiday here, I can’t remember which. I didn’t think much of it, but it stuck in my mind because they made the point that Peter Jackson and his wife Fran Walsh were staunch supporters, and believers of their innocence. Since then the documentary series about the case has consistently popped up on my IMDB recommended list, and documentaries you ‘must see.’ On a whim we chucked it on and from, literally, the first frame I was captivated.

A quick recap; On May 5th 1993 in West Memphis, Arkansas three eight year old boys – Michael Moore, Steve Branch, and Christopher Byers – were reported missing. On May 6th a black shoe was found floating in a muddy creek in Robin Hood Hills. The creek was subsequently drained and the three missing boys bodies were found dead, naked, and hogtied with their own shoelaces. Christopher Byers died of ‘multiple injuries’, the other two died of ‘multiple injuries with drowning.’Much of the politically conservative and Evangelical Christian community, including detectives, believed these killings to be the basis of a ritual, Satanic slaughter.

The film’s opening scenes are plainly shocking. They stopped me dead. I remember making jokes, or acting silly, before the movie had actually started thinking we’d have a while to get through the opening sequence or whatever. The opening scene(s) had my mouth agape the entire time. What struck me is what I imagine strikes most people when first hearing about this case – the absolute brutality that it takes to do this sort of thing to three little boys. We are first shown police footage of the boys’ bikes sitting on top of some pipes, we are then shown the actual crime scene creek being drained, followed by images of the dead boys lying on the banks, still hogtied. It’s probably the first time I’ve ever seen a picture of a murdered kid before. Perfected by Metallica’s song (Welcome Home) Sanitarium, the scene is one of the most powerful, if not the most, I’ve ever seen. It made me so mad and disgusted with whoever did it that in my mind I was already doing my own research by the light of my laptop monitor while everyone else was asleep.

Going in to this documentary series, I didn’t know what to expect. I thought that it was just another crime doco about three kids who were really in to Satan which led them to murder three boys and how it destroyed a community. Boy, was I wrong. About ten minutes in to the film the tone takes on a slight change, one of almost passion backed again by Metallica’s awesome instrumental ‘Orion.’ The mother (Pam Hobbs) of one of the boys is asked by a reporter – “Do you feel the people who did this were worshiping uh…”

“Satan? Yes, I do.”

“Why?”

“Just look at the freaks. I mean, just look at ’em.”

This chilling statement (accepting the fate of your murdered son over the way someone looks!) is one to sum up the entire film almost. We meet the parents  of all three kids, Jason Baldwin (16), Damien Echols (18), and Jesse Misskelly Jr. (17), who all profess their sons’ innocence, followed by the boys themselves. It is Joe Hutchison’s (Echols’ father) words “Our son is innocent. We intend to prove it.” that subtly shifts the film, or rather opens up the film, in to an ambiguous (pfft!) account of the trial. When Hutchison said that, I had chosen my side – the underdog, obviously. He speaks with truth and conviction, while Pam Hobbs, for example, speaks like someone suffering paranoia, or even delusions as she smiles throughout the interview. What follows is perfect structure – hats off to the film makers. Stepfather of Christopher Byers, John Mark Byers, is seen in his redneck uniform of a trucker cap and overalls at the actual crime scene, making such claims as – “…they had their satanic worship services out here. They had all sorts of wild, homosexual orgies…” Such were the rumours and hatred for these three scapegoats, stories like this with absolutely no factual basis came out of nowhere, likely from those trying to deflect blame. Perhaps those responsible for the crime itself.

The first Paradise Lost film (Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills) is a masterclass in documentary film-making. The injustice is so blatant though, that you hesitate to call the film an objective piece – even though it is. There are no voice-overs or narration, everything appears exactly as it was filmed. If someone looks stupid? That’s the way they made themselves look, not clever editing or framing.  On that note, the justice department, and the community of West Memphis, Arkansas should be ashamed of themselves for the way they perverted justice so righteously – ironically playing God as Echols was sentenced to death, some parents of the murdered boys even proudly displaying themselves on film shooting at pumpkins made up to look like the accused’s heads.

If we’re going off the way people look, or seem, (thanks Pam Hobbs) then my partner Abbey was right when Jason Baldwin appeared on screen for the first time. “Well, he’s innocent.” she said. And of course he is, “just look at ’em”. What we see on his face is genuine shock, and more than that, terror. The film makers themselves even noted that before they arrived in West Memphis they simply assumed that the three accused were guilty, why wouldn’t they? After the film’s release, however, it became clear that it wasn’t only the film makers, or Abbey, who could tell these guys were innocent, but basically everyone that saw the film – including people like Eddie Vedder, and Johnny Depp. This sprung the Free the WM3 movement which gained traction and support from all over the globe, and sprouted two more films in the Paradise Lost saga, and West of Memphis, a separate documentary released after the Three were freed.

Yeah, spoiler alert – they got out eventually. The story of how, why and when is just as gripping as the first film so go check it out. I will say this, though, justice has not been served. Just because they can walk freely today is no consolation. The circumstances they were released under were a disgusting display of the state throwing their weight around and forcing three already trapped men further in to a corner. Echols, however irresponsibly, summed it up best during his trial:

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