Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (2011) – Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky

The problem with Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory is that it’s after a truth that it can’t obtain. I don’t know whether the West Memphis Three murdered the eight-year-old boys they were convicted of murdering. But neither do Joe Berlinger or Bruce Sinofsky, the filmmakers behind Paradise Lost 3. Nor does the state of Arkansas, the parents of the victims or anyone except the people who did it. Based on the story told in the film, it seems clear that there’s at least a shadow of a doubt that Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, Jr and Jason Baldwin, convicted of the 1993 murders of Stevie Branch, Michael Moore and Christopher Byers are innocent of that crime but that’s because that’s the opinion of the film and the filmmakers are skilled. After three documentaries, Berlinger’s and Sinofsky’s views on this are pretty established.

I have not seen the previous two Paradise Lost films, shown on HBO on 1996 and 2000, but I was aware of the West Memphis Three when I started the movie and I wonder what additional information could possibly be in those other two films. I got a fairly comprehensive look at the case and the legal and public opinion battle that has raged for more than eighteen years since. That the series has been instrumental in the case being examined and reexamined seems plain, in fact the movie makes mention of it several times, but instead of trying to prove something that can’t be proved, Paradise Lost 3 would be better served if it sought an emotional truth.

During the legal recounting and the mounting evidence that the three were convicted hastily, we get glimpses of human nature, certainly in the case of one of the victim’s step-father, John Mark Byers, violently against the three during the trial and immediately after. We see him first get accused himself a number of years ago and now a staunch defendant of the three and an aggressor against another parent who’s also implemented, but with actual (though loose) evidence. The other father, Terry Hobbs, which the film seems to endorse as at least a person of interest, is a bit of sleaze ball, divorced because of his violence, allegedly seen with the boys the night of the murders and with no alibi, and with evidence that could belong to him at the crime scene.  This is interesting, but more so is the way that hurt and pain gets shifted and directed in other areas. When it was at its height, the West Memphis Three bore the brunt of the anger, but after some time passes, people transfer their feelings, grab on to another story and just as passionately persue it.

Furthermore, in the epilogue, the film chronicles the three entering Alford guilty pleas and walking away, released, and though still technically convicted, nominally pardoned and excused. Baldwin talks with the camera about the feeling of being free but at the cost of pleading guilty and how this way, as he claims to be innocent, justice still isn’t served. There’s your film right there, not just the epilogue. Again, the movies is very skillful and processes a lot of information and explains it clearly and passionately but it could have been more. I say this far too often, but if only Errol Morris could direct every documentary.

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