... And Justice for All?
Texas Documentary Tour: Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger's Revelations
Filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky have spent the better part of their careers documenting the soft and rancid underbelly of small-town America. In eight years and three films they have examined what happens when American justice and the lower societal strata collide, with results at once shocking and powerfully moving. Their first film, 1992's Brother's Keeper, profiled a backwoods murder case arising in the midst of the elderly Ward brother's ramshackle dairy farm in upstate Munnsville, New York. The film was hailed by audiences and critics alike as a masterful look at due process among the socially abandoned. Sinofsky and Berlinger's 1996 film for HBO, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, however, drew even more attention as it related the events behind the brutal sex killings of three eight-year-old boys in the tiny, impoverished Arkansas township of West Memphis. The boys were strangled with their own shoelaces, battered, and hideously mutilated -- a horrific crime that rocked the small community and ended with the arrests, trial, and conviction of three local teenagers: Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, and Jason Baldwin. According to Paradise Lost, these three teens were clearly little more than scapegoats for a town desperate to shut the books on a nightmare that had practically destroyed all shades of normalcy.
Due to certain aspects of the killings -- one of the boys had his genitalia clumsily removed -- the local police and prosecutors were quick to decry it as a crime that bore "ritual Satanic overtones." When local black-clad and Metallica-loving Echols and his friends were unable to provide satisfactory explanations of their whereabouts at the time of the murders, they were arrested. After 12 hours of police grilling, Echols' friend Misskelley, with a tested IQ of 71, confessed that he had seen Echols and Baldwin commit the murders and had himself helped chase down one of the boys as they attempted to flee.
Despite shoddy and highly circumstantial evidence on the part of the prosecution, all three teens were convicted. As the alleged ringleader, Echols was sentenced to death.
Four years later, Berlinger and Sinofsky returned to the scene of the crime to view the aftermath of the trial and its impact on West Memphis. The result is Paradise Lost 2: Revelations, which Sinofsky will introduce at the Alamo Drafthouse Wednesday, April 12, as part of the Texas Documentary Tour. What the filmmakers discover in this sequel is an ongoing travesty of the American judicial system, with suppressed and mishandled evidence that's since come to light. They also introduce us to a tireless group of advocates for the accused created in the wake of the first film -- the "Free the West Memphis Three" Internet alliance (http://www.wm3.org) -- and a shockingly callous local and state government sick to death of all their probing. There's also the intriguing question of John Mark Byers, the father of one of the slain boys, whose wild rants and bizarre life have led many people to believe that the prosecution convicted the wrong men entirely.
Berlinger and Sinofsky are quick to say that despite the half-dozen or so years spent covering the case, they're still not sure who committed the crimes. They both point out, however, that the three jailed boys got a raw deal and were arrested and convicted due in part to their preferred style of dress and taste in heavy metal music in an area of the country that just doesn't cotton to that sort of thing. From their homes in New York, the filmmakers spoke with us about the two Paradise Lost films and their ongoing involvement in the West Memphis situation ...
Austin Chronicle: First of all, why the sequel? It's highly uncommon to have a sequel to a documentary film, isn't it?
Joe Berlinger: Well, it was HBO's idea initially -- they were talking to us about it almost immediately after the first film came out because it was so successful for them. It was a tripleheader: It got great reviews, great ratings, and great awards. Honestly, I was not crazy about the idea on a filmmaking level, and I'm so glad we ended up doing it but, you know, initially I felt like retreading the same ground would not be creatively interesting. Sequels never do as well as the original, and just emotionally, on a personal level, it's a depressing, difficult story, and to spend more time there -- we'd already spent three years on the first one and then almost four years on the second one. To spend that kind of time in that kind of a world, is just ... I have kids of my own, and the whole idea was not positive for me.
However, that having been said, I'm a firm believer that these kids need a new trial. The film tries very hard to be objective and doesn't try to burden itself with the proof of guilt or innocence, per se, but rather the lighter position that they definitely deserve a new trial. Personally, I feel like they're definitely innocent.
Bruce Sinofsky: What frustrated Joe and me with the first film was that it didn't seem to motivate as many people as we hoped it would to look into the case. It certainly motivated a group that we ended up profiling in the second film [the "Free the West Memphis Three" group], but we never felt that it got the attention or that pressure was put on the authorities to do a better job. We felt that was necessary. Going into the sequel, we thought we were just basically going to do a follow-up project, and it ended up being something much more complex.
AC: So the first film didn't quite generate the reaction you were seeking?
Berlinger: I guess the big disappointment of the first film was that it was great getting good reviews and handed all these awards -- all that is very fulfilling as a filmmaker -- but it's not a fictional film, it's a real-life situation. So my big disappointment, and Bruce's too, was always that the film never got off the entertainment page onto the news page. Unlike [Errol Morris' documentary] The Thin Blue Line, it didn't seem to be having the effect of creating a new trial. Although it did do a lot: It brought in this Internet group "Free the West Memphis Three," and lots of people from around the country have given Damien and the others plenty of attention, anonymous contributions of money, and so on. So the film did have an effect, but ultimately it didn't create a new trial situation, which is something on a personal level I had hoped for.
AC: Why do you think Damien Echols and the other two teens were presented as such scapegoats by their own community?
Berlinger: I look at the first Paradise Lost, and I think that it's clearly a film about three kids who danced to a different tune, and in particular Damien Echols, who danced to a different tune in a region where that tune is not appreciated. After all, if these kids were in L.A. or New York or San Francisco, no one would have batted an eye at the way they acted or dressed. To me, the first film is clearly about how these three kids were tried because of their personalities and their interests and no real hard evidence. The shock for me was that 20-25% of the people who watch Paradise Lost buy into the very same prejudices that the community did. The film was viewed as being much more ambiguous than we intended it to be. People say, you know, "Well, they look weird, they must have done something." The whole point of the film is that you can't put someone to death because they look weird -- you'd better have hard evidence. There's so many things that are problematic with that first case. Again, we're not saying that these kids deserve to be let out of jail and just walk free. What the film is saying is: You know what? There are way too many disturbing questions, and if you're going to put someone to death, you'd better make damn certain you've got the right person.
AC:Let's get into some of the "revelations" that came up over the course of shooting the sequel ...
Berlinger: There are so many problems with this case, the chief one being that you have a confession in which the police allege that three inexperienced killers took three kids out into the woods at dusk and slaughtered them unmercifully and yet there's no blood at the crime scene, no residue, no pieces of flesh. I mean, these kids were just brutalized. That alone tells me that this couldn't have happened the way [the police] said it did. And yet, there are so many other things wrong with the case.
AC: Echols is a much more sympathetic figure in the sequel than he was originally. In the first film he was seen primping his hair in the courtroom and making wisecracks and so on. In Revelations that teenage bravado is totally absent, and as a result he's become this terribly tragic figure.
Berlinger: In order to create a full and honest portrait of Damien back then, you have to include his personality quirks, because that's what the community was reacting to. To understand how a community could zero in on these kids and be satisfied that they're the killers without any hard evidence, you have to include those aspects of their personalities -- particularly Damien's -- in the movie. So when the first movie ends with Damien cockily talking about himself being seen as this "West Memphis boogeyman," you know, is that the confession of a serial killer? I don't think so. But that's what a good number of viewers took that comment to mean. The point of that is not to say that he's the killer. The point of that is to show that that this kid, at that time, was incredibly self-involved and narcissistic -- in short, a typical teen who didn't understand the situation he was in. That's what was on trial: his personality and his interests.
Three things really came together at once and created a very bad situation for Damien (and we focused on Damien more in the film because his situation is that much more dire). First, this is a very fundamentalist, Bible-thumping part of the country (and I'm not knocking that, per se) where the belief in heaven and hell is so real, and the belief that the devil runs among us is very real, so the moment people start talking about devil worship, people freak out. Second, the viciousness of the crime -- it was so horrible, and so unthinkable, and in such a small town, that people needed to find a solution so that they could let their kids out the front door again. The third thing was an incredibly inept, lazy, inexperienced press corps who totally blew the people's minds from the moment these kids were arrested. It was a press corps that was more interested in "feeding the monster" of the daily headline or the evening news, and it was just an easier or more interesting story to jump on the devil-worshipping-teen bandwagon. In fact, our first introduction to the case was from a local AP wire story about that aspect of it. We went into Paradise Lost thinking we were making a film about three disaffected youth who were like a real-life River's Edge, you know? This was also right around the time that those two kids in England killed another little boy, and we thought: How could these young kids do such a rotten thing? That's what we wanted to explore, that mindset, and then when we got down there we found something completely different.
AC: How did you manage to get rights to use Metallica's music on the first (and second) film? They're not exactly known for allowing their music to be used in films.
Sinofsky: The reality is that we had been using it as scratch music in the first film, and it had been working so well that we actually tried going through channels to reach Metallica and finally, eventually, we did, only to find out that they were big fans of Brother's Keeper and they said absolutely we could use a few cuts of music for Paradise Lost. Basically, it was free.
AC:Tell me a little bit about Mark Byers, a father of one of the victims, who comes across as a very suspicious character in Revelations.
Sinofsky: Mark is somebody who's been very open to us and very giving in terms of access. Could a better case have been made against Mark Byers than the three kids who are in jail? Possibly. But because Mark is a little odd and a little bizarre on a certain level, I don't want to go into the same sorts of prejudices that went into the situation with the three boys in jail, right? I don't think there's sufficient evidence for the three boys in jail, much less evidence for Mr. Byers. I do notice a lot of people think he may have well been involved [in the murders] but, yeah, come up with the physical proof and we'll go from there. Do I think he did it? I don't know who did it. But I'm pretty well convinced that the three who are in jail didn't do it. At the very least, they didn't get a fair trial.
AC: I heard that the Governor of Arkansas recently issued a statement saying your films were total fictions?
Sinofsky: That's right. In the Governor of Arkansas' office, a woman named Tina Watkins put out a press release saying that Paradise Lost and Revelations were fictional accounts of real cases. I actually called the office myself a few days ago and spoke to Tina and asked her point blank whether this had really indeed come out of her office, because I had been approached by some press in the area and I did not feel comfortable giving them a statement until I knew that this had indeed come from the Governor's office. Tina told me that yes, it had come from the Governor's office, and when I asked her if she honestly thought that these films were works of fiction, she hung up on me.
It bothers me that the Governor's office -- and I know that he's been put under a lot of pressure, and I think she is now at this point, too, because I don't think he's too pleased with what she did -- would do this. I think that if you asked the attorneys, the men who are in jail, and the families who lost their children if they thought this was a work of fiction, I don't think they'd appreciate that either. Because it certainly wasn't.
Berlinger: For the state to issue a statement that two cinéma vérité movies that were shot while the events were unfolding with the participation of the real people involved ... if that is fiction, it's just emblematic of the corruption of truth that has been the hallmark of this case since day one. The corruption of truth and the campaign of disinformation.
AC: This makes three films now that have explored American justice from your unique point of view. Is this a theme you're going to continue to mine?
Sinofsky: These cases have been the skeleton that we've hung these films on, but it deals with many more issues than just murder or death or innocence and guilt. There are a lot of issues that relate to class, sociology, you know, if you look at these films, they're wonderful studies of the human condition. You don't have to have a murder case to hang it on, but if that's where it came from, that's where it came from. But neither Joe nor I usually look for gloom and doom and murder, because you do pay a price for making these kinds of films. They're disturbing to watch, but if you have to make them, it's a thousandfold.
Paradise Lost 2: Revelations will be playing at the Alamo Drafthouse, 409 Colorado, 6:45pm & 9:45pm, as part of the Texas Documentary Tour. Filmmaker Bruce Sinofsky will introduce the film and conduct a Q&A following each screening. Advance tickets are available for Austin Film Society members only by calling 322-0145. $6 ($4, AFS members & students).