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Sundance: Power of film shown in 'West of Memphis'

Published January 24, 2012 4:28 pm

Sundance • Documentary underscores the fascination with 3 Arkansas men convicted of murder, and spotlights a flawed justice system.
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Park City • Seven months ago, Damien Echols was serving his 19th year on Arkansas' death row, convicted and sentenced along with two others in the grisly 1993 murder of three 8-year-old boys in the town of West Memphis.

Last week in Park City, he shared dinner with two of the victims' parents, then found himself feted at the Jan. 20 Sundance documentary premiere of "West of Memphis."

"It's very, very odd," said Echols, now 37, during the red-carpet lineup before Friday's screening. "I don't think the average person has anything in their frame of reference to compare it to."

Films can set you free • That understatement highlights the real winner behind Echols' words: The power of film.

You can ask anyone who's followed the long, tortuous story of Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelly Jr., otherwise known as the "West Memphis Three."

Without the presence of filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky at their original trial, there wouldn't have been the "Paradise Lost" documentaries, which aired on HBO beginning in 1996. Those films raised disturbing questions about the evidence that put Echols on death row, and sentenced Baldwin and Misskelly to life in prison.

With the first installment of "Paradise Lost," the groundswell of support from viewers helped fuel the trio's legal appeals. The documentaries led Peter Jackson, director of "Lord of the Rings," and his partner Fran Walsh, to help fund the appeals and to hire Berg in 2008 to direct "West of Memphis."

The power of documentary film caused an unlikely turn of events that could be compared to miles and miles of dominos falling in turn. Without the force of that first film, it's unlikely that Arkansas prosecutors would have felt compelled to offer Echols, Baldwin and Misskelly the deal last August that set them free.

What began with "Paradise Lost" • "If there are 100 films made about this case — so long as they're balanced and accurate — then perfect," Echols said, his words echoing the sentiment of "Paradise Lost" triology director Joe Berlinger, who wasn't involved with "West of Memphis."

"There can't be enough films about this miscarriage of justice," Berlinger said. (At Sundance, Berlinger is promoting "Under African Skies," a documentary following Paul Simon back to South Africa a quarter-decade after the recording of "Graceland.")

With news last month that Reese Witherspoon joined the cast of director Atom Egoyan's film, "Devil's Knot," depicting events of the case, Echols and Berlinger's wishes might come true.

Watching director and screenwriter Amy Berg's "West of Memphis" at a packed Sundance screening, it's easy to see how the story of three young men from Arkansas could spark the passion of multiple directors. Berg, nominated for an Academy Award for her 2006 film "Deliver Us From Evil," about the sexual abuse of innocents by Roman Catholic priests, finds a similar story of innocence abused in telling the story of the West Memphis Three.

Set in the buckle of the Bible Belt, "West of Memphis" highlights the abuses of the criminal justice system that led to the trio's convictions, and the pain of victims' families, the isolation of growing up different in the rural South, and the regional hysteria over Satanic ritual murder that led to their arrests.

A crowd-sourced cinematic investigation • The film demolishes the original evidence against Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley through interviews with experts who reviewed the case and with key eyewitnesses who later recanted their testimony.

It's also a whirlwind tour of how the legal system works, a gruesome lesson in crime-scene forensics featuring alligator-snapping turtles feasting on a pig carcass. Plus, the film includes a gallery of celebrities, including Eddie Vedder and Henry Rollins, who believed in the trio's innocence.

Rollins tells of how he listened to the same weird music as Echols growing up, and also thumbed his nose at law enforcement. "It could have been me" charged with the same crimes, Rollins says to the camera.

The film presents DNA and other evidence that suggests a stepfather of one of the victims could have murdered the three boys. At two-and-a-half hours long, indeed, "West of Memphis" is so stuffed with footage, interviews and ongoing developments it could have collapsed under its own weight. As one expert investigator states in the film, the story of the West Memphis Three is perhaps "the first crowd-sourced investigation" into a criminal case, thanks to the legions who've followed proceedings over 15 years.

What's love got to do with it? • Beating at the center of the documentary, thankfully, is the romance between Echols and Lorri Davis, a woman who believed in him almost from the beginning, marrying Echols inside an Arkansas prison. Along with Jackson, Walsh and Echols, she helped produce Berg's film.

There's so much evil throughout this case," Jackson told the media on the red carpet before its premiere screening. "Then there's someone's love that punches right through it."

Echols said he's far from his victory lap, despite relishing his moment alongside Davis, appearing almost defiant in a black wardrobe that might fit in among all the Hollywood types flooding this ski resort town, but that made him a suspicious outsider in his community all those years back. Echols has a book coming out in September and a possible art show in New York City.

But he's rankled by the nature of the Alford pleas that let him, Baldwin and Misskelley walk free, asserting their innocence but still pleading guilty to the crimes of which they were convicted, and also by knowing that the person who committed the murders remains free.

Echols' belief that justice must be served after the injustice he, Baldwin and Misskelley suffered is expressed at the end of Berg's film. At credits' end, the same tip-line phone number that hovered on a billboard over an Arkansas freeway appears on the screen. One version of the billboard shows the faces of the West Memphis Three, while another billboard photo shows the faces of the three boys who were brutally murdered.

"It's still an uphill fight," Echols said. "It's not going to be completely over until we're completely exonerated ... and the people who should be in prison, are in prison."


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'West of Memphis' screening:

Tuesday, Jan. 24, 5:30 p.m. • Screening Room, Sundance Resort

Saturday, Jan. 28, 6 p.m. • Yarrow Hotel Theatre, Park City