West of Memphis to be screened free
Posted: September 14, 2012 at 2:16 a.m.
LITTLE ROCK Director Amy Berg picked up an Oscar nomination for her documentary Deliver Us From Evil. From talking with her on the phone from New York, it’s obvious that she didn’t get the nod for examining easy subject matter.
Her latest, West of Memphis, continues a series of free screenings in Little Rock at the Market Street Cinema on Oct. 2 and 3 at 7 p.m. There are additional screenings throughout September and October in Hot Springs, Mountain Home and Jonesboro.
The film examines how teenagers Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley and Jason Baldwin, called the West Memphis Three, came to be convicted of the 1993 murders of three 8-year-olds named Steven Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore in West Memphis. The case attracted international headlines and led to Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s Oscar-nominated Paradise Lost documentaries.
Last year, the three defendants were released by making a rare Alford plea, in which they pleaded guilty while proclaiming their innocence. The three and their advocates want the case reopened, hoping for a full exoneration and the arrest of the perpetrator of the crimes.
West of Memphis may cover some familiar and potentially controversial ground. For example, the parents of Michael Moore have publicly maintained that the West Memphis Three are guilty.
“When I saw the evidence they used against the guys and how flimsy it was,” Berg says, “it became apparent that everyone continued to rest on Misskelley’s confession. If you listen to this confession and start digging through the evidence, it’s not as controversial as it seems. There’s so much contradictory information. It’s almost kind of surprising that they were convicted in the first place.”
Misskelley later recanted his confession, and West of Memphis features passages from the taped confession that cast doubt on its validity.
“[The West Memphis police] did fill everything in. They did lead him. We had numerous false confession experts listen to the confession. They all said the same thing,” Berg says. “He had also been in the police department for 12 hours. He was worn down.”
What’s unusual about West of Memphis is that Berg opens the film by presenting the case as if the West Memphis Three were guilty. “We wanted to show the audience how they got convicted in the first place. We felt that was a really important way to tell the story. If you want to say someone is innocent, you need to earn that with your audience, obviously. We just felt it was only fair to everyone to see how that happens,” Berg says.
In addition to presenting two witnesses who apologize on-camera for their courtroom testimony, West of Memphis also devotes much of its running time to establishing Steven Branch’s stepfather, Terry Hobbs, as another suspect.
Berg says the West Memphis Three are far different from the Rev. Oliver O’Grady, the priest she profiled in Deliver Us From Evil, so she has no qualms about working with Echols and his wife, Lorri Davis, as producers on the new film.
“[O’Grady] was a convicted pedophile. He was really interested in sharing his story and needing help,” she says. “But this is the opposite. Lorri Davis and Damien Echols were victims of the system. They didn’t have a crime to confess to.”
The film also includes recollections from Judge John Fogleman, who prosecuted the 1994 case, and state Sen. David Burnett, who presided as the judge.
“I talked to Fogleman many times. I was very happy when he agreed to go on camera. I wish that he would go a little bit further because there are just too many dots that need to be filled in,” she says.
“He had a hunch in the middle of the night that there was a knife in the middle of the lake [near Baldwin’s home], and he called out a camera crew and a diver to look for ... the lake knife. It was in the record that the knife had been thrown into the lake a year earlier.”
Oscar-winning New Zealand-based filmmakers Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh (the duo behind The Lord of the Rings) have backed the film and the effort to free the West Memphis Three. West of Memphis also features Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder, who has donated his own cash for the cause.
“Many journalists think it’s just a novelty project,” Berg says. “Every person that we interviewed and featured in the film, no matter what level of fame they have, they were equally devoted to finding the truth. Eddie knows as much about the case as [profiler] John Douglas or the lawyers.”
According to Berg, the timing of the preview screenings across Arkansas is no coincidence. Judges and prosecutors in this state are elected in November.
“It’s an election period and [Prosecuting Attorney ] Scott Ellington and David Burnett are up for office, and it’s only fair that people in the areas affected by this case see this information. Scott Ellington was obviously involved much later than Burnett and or Fogleman or any of the other players, but we are hoping that he will continue to investigate the case.”
MovieStyle, Pages 33 on 09/14/2012