Saturday 6 October 2012

At the LFF: "West of Memphis"

The opening fifteen minutes of Amy Berg's two-and-a-half-hour documentary West of Memphis present us with an apparently open-and-shut case. In May 1993, the mutilated bodies of three eight-year-old boys - Christopher Byers, Michael Moore and Stevie Branch - were discovered hog-tied in a ditch in an impoverished region of West Memphis, Arkansas. Subsequently jailed for the crime were three 16-year-olds - Damien Echols, Jesse Misskelley and Jason Baldwin - whom the prosecution claimed were practising Satanists. As anyone who's seen Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's three Paradise Lost documentaries will already be aware, this wasn't the whole picture. Talk of a major miscarriage of justice was already circulating when, with the case deemed closed, court documents became publicly available, showing just how leading the initial police interrogation had been (particularly when questioning the mentally challenged Misskelley), how ineffectual the teenagers' defence had been, how crucial evidence had been manipulated to fit the allegations, and how each successive trial had striven not for full and fair justice, but to clean up earlier judicial failures. 

The Satanic angle turned out to be no more than the latest incarnation of America's scarcely suppressed fear of difference, an update of that old witchcraft hysteria on a par with - but vastly more consequential than - the furore around Marilyn Manson's 1990s output. Echols, cited as the leader of those accused, dressed in black, had an interest in magic (by which I mean conjuring and card tricks) and listened to rock music, all of which made him an easy target: the kind of poor white trash nobody was meant to miss. And yet his outsider status is exactly what drew others to his cause: not just Berlinger (who went on to direct the Metallica documentary Some Kind of Monster), but the likes of Henry Rollins and Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam, both of whom played benefit gigs to help raise funds and attention for subsequent appeals.

Berg is, then, just the latest creative to have become fascinated with this case, but her retelling enjoys several advantages over Berlinger and Sinofsky's stop-start trilogy: a more complete emotional arc, a CSI-schooled audience alert to and interested in the rapid developments in forensic technology that came to cast doubt upon the initial verdict, and - behind the camera - the support of Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, outsiders-turned-Hollywood-insiders after the success of Heavenly Creatures and the Lord of the Rings films, who were able to sponsor a comprehensive reexamination of this material and secure the participation of almost all the key figures in this case. The project's goals were twofold: to finally lift the burden of suspicion off the shoulders of "the West Memphis Three" (as Echols, Misskelley and Baldwin came to be known), and then to place it somewhere closer to home.

In the first of these, she's undeniably successful. Though Berg displays a weakness, increasingly common in even our smarter documentaries, for celebrity validation - as though we couldn't possibly find these three innocent without Cap'n Jack Sparrow coming on to read a poem first - the film's sheer, dogged comprehensiveness works in her favour: this is a documentary with the werewithal and resources to call up a snapping turtle expert to disprove the prosecution's Satanic angle in a comically hands-on manner. With regard to the second goal, West of Memphis is arguably a little shakier. Seasoned true-crime observers won't be too surprised where the finger of suspicion for the boys' deaths eventually lands, though Berg could be accused of pressing the point altogether heavily. There's something questionably intrusive and voyeuristic in her filming of a therapy session, inserted to underline a thesis already set out with coherence; in asking one witness to call her chief suspect and get their thoughts on tape, she risks accusations of entrapment that might just drown out the resulting conversation. 

For all the horrific allegations her film unearths, Berg falls short in attributing motive to its likely killer - though the very fact it has you sifting and weighing the evidence in this way testifies to its undeniable dramatic effectiveness. In the end, the film may be most powerful as both a document and indictment of the damnably slow nature of a system that kept three innocent men behind bars for years while proving reliably incurious about the one individual who might just have committed the crime. This case began on NTSC videotape and lingers on in high-definition news broadcasts, encompassing Facebook and Google searches, while - even as the severest of doubts were cast on the initial convictions - the prisoners grew from boys flipping the bird to court cameras to men burnt and hardened by experience, in a way the children whose murders remain to this day unsolved will not and can not. From this painful asymmetry West of Memphis draws its considerable emotional kick.

West of Memphis screens on Saturday 13 at 2.45pm at the Vue West End, and again on Sun 14 at 12noon at the Odeon West End; it opens in the UK later this year.

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