Let the People Speak

Documentarians Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky

Twenty years ago, it would have been a national, if not international, sensation: The nude bodies of three boys, all eight years old, are discovered on a soggy Arkansas creekbed. They have been bound up with their own shoelaces, murdered, and sexually mutilated. One has been beaten so badly about the face he is almost unrecognizable. Another has had his penis and testicles removed with a serrated knife.

Today, mass killings by deranged cranks and the calculated horrors perpetrated by serial killers practically blend into the bloody tapestry of post-Whitman America. One can hardly expect a society to be shocked by the murder of three boys after it has experienced the soul-numbing devastation of Henry Lee Lucas, Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, Aileen Wuornos, Jim Jones, and all the enraged losers who have taken up arms against innocent people in restaurants, post offices, and subway trains.

But the killings in the city of West Memphis, Arkansas, population 28,000, did make headlines, and among the first on the scene after three suspects were arrested were documentary filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky.

Sinofsky and Berlinger are the producing and directing team responsible for the acclaimed 1992 documentary Brother's Keeper about a quartet of elderly brothers in upstate New York. This extraordinary film examines the lives of four men who live by themselves in a small farmhouse. None were afflicted with an overabundance of intelligence or knowledge of personal hygiene. When the youngest brother was accused of murdering one of the others, the filmmakers spent several months in Munnsville, New York, revealing a bracingly intimate portrayal of the surviving brothers, and capturing a memorable example of how a community responds to attacks on one's own.

When the pair read a small story in The New York Times about the West Memphis crimes, they immediately packed their bags, rented a cheap motel, and spent the next several months getting to know an American subculture that some would just as soon forget.

West Memphis, which is only a few miles from the real Memphis on the other side of the state line, is God-and-guns country, where rusty cars and rotten teeth are as common as nose rings and tattoos at Ruta Maya. It is a place where churches compete for the catchiest slogan on their signs: "There's no business like soul business" and "Most of us would be perfect parents if it weren't for our own children." It's a place where conversation cannot occur without at least one burning cigarette. And it's where someone who has endured a tragic loss says, "I've never hated anyone before," yet her sad, drawn, weathered face belies a life of untold pain, bitterness, disappointment, and suspicion.

But there was plenty about the child murder case that made this visit among an unfamiliar culture (both Berlinger and Sinofsky are Northeastern and Jewish) worth the strangeness and possible danger.

First, the suspects in the case were little more than boys themselves. The oldest -- and the one on whom the investigation focuses -- is only 18. Weirder still, police believe that the killings were part of a satanic ritual planned and executed by this older boy, Damien Echols. His accomplices are so small you wonder how they could have caught and subdued even tiny 8-year-olds. Indeed, the prosecution's case is far from perfect, but a certain single-mindedness settles over the proceedings, and it is eerily reminiscent of open-and-shut presumptions documented in The Thin Blue Line.

As one follows Paradise Lost: The Child Murders of Robin Hood Hills through its swift two and a half hours, one is constantly amazed at the candor and cooperation of the interview subjects. They talk to the suspects and their parents, the victims' parents, lawyers, and prosecutors. They were even allowed into attorneys' strategy meetings. (O. J. Simpson defense attorney Barry Scheck, after a screening, says he was "appalled" at the access given to the crew.) In interviews, both Berlinger and Sinofsky are prolific and persuasive talkers, but nothing prepares you for the kind of access they achieved in making this film. Reached this past weekend at their homes in New England, they talked about the making of this film and of the difficulties in making and distributing a film by themselves. The first thing that came up was the matter of access.

"What Joe and I do is not try to ingratiate ourselves with people. We just work hard forming relationships, and developing a measure of trust and respect. We don't push people, we let them know we want to make a film about what they're going through. We certainly don't harass them if they don't want to be involved. One set of parents of the victims didn't want to cooperate initially, but after a few months they agreed," Sinofsky says.

"The key is to spend a lot of time, investing time getting to know people and giving them space if they don't want to be filmed," Berlinger added. "A lot of time is spent trying to immerse ourselves into the culture, and the most important thing is to treat people with respect."

Brother's Keeper was a great calling card for this film," Sinofsky says. "All of the lawyers in the Paradise Lost trial were given a copy. They saw we made films that weren't one-sided, that we weren't into an advocacy film like The Thin Blue Line. Each wanted their side to be told, and both thought they had the virtuous side."

For each hour that was captured on film, Sinofsky says, they spent two hours just talking, letting their subjects ask questions about them. Sinofsky compared this technique to setting a table before serving a meal.

Like many a good documentary, Paradise Lost starts out being about one thing (a trial) and ends being about much, much more. The camera can't help what it sees. And what it sees here in great detail is, plainly put, white trash.

"The people whose children were murdered lived in modest housing," Sinofsky says. "They looked at the people in trailers as white trash, but in fact, most people in America would see these parents as white trash. Some of the critics at Sundance say that we `condemned' West Memphis, but we only showed six families. And we showed these people in the light in which they presented themselves. If you're doing a film about Scrooge, wouldn't it be wrong to show him as someone other than an SOB who made life miserable for Bob Cratchit?"

"The goal was not to put `white trash' in a fishbowl, per se," Berlinger says, using my terms with some discomfort. "But the trial became almost an excuse for making a film about something else. You can say that the trial is not as important as the other stuff going on between trial sequences. But with three lives hanging in the balance, the trial is important. Personally, the `who did it' aspect is more important in Brother's Keeper. But it's a secondary question, it's the narrative glue that holds a dramatic story."

Berlinger also observed that most people who see films like Brother's Keeper and Paradise Lost are relatively upscale, urban, and educated. Most people who see these films have never known a place like Munnsville or West Memphis. "We like to show American subcultures that people don't get to see," he comments.

Both Brother's Keeper and Paradise Lost (as well as their one-hour film for television about panhandlers, The Begging Game) owe much to Albert and David Maysles (Gimme Shelter, Grey Gardens), whose films in the cinéma-vérité style made the camera seem more important than the director. In fact, Berlinger and Sinofsky met while working for the Maysles' film company in 1986. In 1991, they formed their own production company, Creative Thinking International.

The men share producing, directing, and editing responsibilities, among many others. Berlinger says they share a vision and work together to maintain the relationships that give them access.

"Where we separate a bit is stuff around the film, like I handle business, legal, and financial matters, and Bruce handles most of the post-production and technical things. I tend to take an intellectual approach to things, and he takes a more humanistic one. If I weren't working with Bruce, the films might be dryer. If he weren't working with me they wouldn't be as layered. We started out as very good friends, and Brother's Keeper was such a bonding experience, now we're best friends. Like a marriage, it has to be maintained. But it's wonderful to have someone who is your equal, who you can trust and rely on."

These are busy days for the guys. In addition to developing new projects, endless promotional tasks for Paradise Lost, and the occasional commercial shoot to pay the bills (they just finished a Slimfast ad last week), they are distributing the new film themselves. They tried self-distribution with Brother's Keeper, were pleased with the results, and decided to do it again.

"Self-distribution is just like any other," Sinofsky says. "We have a group that makes posters, ad slicks, trailers, all the things somebody like Miramax has. The only thing we don't have is power, and a pipeline of product. We're the first film that gets bumped off an opening date."

The distributors, with a line of product, can often force a theatre operator to play a less desirable film in order to secure a playdate for a potential hit. Booking dates for independent films are notoriously flexible. But by bypassing the distributor, the filmmakers can potentially put more money into their own pockets.

Not that there's all that much money in documentaries. These poor films are really the stepchildren of the theatrical family. Big distributors shy away from them, and even the Motion Picture Academy's own documentary committee seems weirdly uninterested in the films that stand out (Hoop Dreams, The Thin Blue Line, Brother's Keeper). Paradise Lost was made for initial showing on HBO, but the boys retained theatrical rights in the U.S.

"Five million people have seen it on HBO already," Berlinger says thankfully. "The state of arts funding is so abysmal, you just can't raise money. So we're thankful for our relationship with them and for foreign television. PBS has a very defined idea of the documentaries they want to make, and even a distributor like Miramax would never dream of initiating films like this. So cable has become a major player. "But why do we do this (city-to-city distribution) after it has been on TV? The answer is, though we made it for HBO and they paid for it, we make our films for movie audiences. We make movies so layered and dense and full of information the only way to enjoy it is to have your undivided attention in a movie theatre."

Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills premiered in Austin in March 1996 during the SXSW Film Festival. Bruce Sinofsky also renewed his ties to Austin this summer when he served on the judges' panel for the Texas Filmmakers' Production Fund, whose first-ever annual awards distributed a total of $30,000 to 11 worthy film projects. Paradise Lost begins an exclusive run at the Dobie Theatre on Friday, October 18.

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