Back in the early 90s, a group of three teenagers were arrested and convicted after a brutal crime of child murder was uncovered in a small Arkansas town. Throughout the trial, the “West Memphis Three” plead their innocence. In the mid-90s, an HBO documentary brought the story of the victims, their families, and the accused to a wider audience with the first, celebrated PARADISE LOST film.
Several years later, the filmmakers returned to flesh out the story – while the first film was mildly manipulative, the second became downright polemical, teasing rabid performances from the father of one of the victims, and taking it for granted that all questions of the innocence of the convicted had already been answered.
This third film does something quite remarkable, particularly for viewers familiar with the other works (I watched the other two days before the festival started) – quite simply, it attempts both to build on the impact of the first film, while at the same time making up for the egregious, propogandistic elements of the second. While the first film was about the case and the characters, the second was inevitably about the filmmakers themselves and their role in the media circus. This role is reevaluated with the benefit of time, as is the coverage and media hype of the trial.
New interviews with the three are accomplished, tying well into the narratives we’ve seen. New questions are raised about further subjects for inquiry, but done in a less strident fashion. The fact that the step-father who comes across as suspect number one becomes one of the more vocal proponents for the release of the convicted adds a particularly interesting slant on the proceedings.
What shapes the film even more, however, are events that took place after the film was completed. As a simple title card announces, the three were released days after the film was locked, let out under a legal maneuver that had them plead guilty in order to see immediate release. This leaves the work unfinished, of course, and the version we saw at TIFF is likely to be the only time that one is shown. What will remain in whatever form the final project takes is a considerable maturation of both scope and talent from the filmmakers, picking up on those elements where they went way overboard and dialing it back in. The narrative remains as compelling as ever, the scope of the story worth of such repeated telling, one of witch hunts, miscarriages of justice, and the still pending mystery of just what went down that night in that West Memphis town.