“I won’t say I hope you enjoy the film, but I’ll say that I hope you enjoy the music and take something away from it,” might have seemed like an odd preface to come from the Sony Music representative introducing the private screening of West of Memphis last night at the TIFF Bell Lightbox Theatre.
But, for anyone who understood the subject matter of the documentary before taking their seat, his sentiment was bang on. West of Memphis wouldn’t be easy to stomach – and would be nearly impossible to summarize lightly – but is an important story to tell.
Detailing the widely publicized crime story of the three 18 year-old teenagers known as the “West Memphis Three,” who were convicted of a brutal “satanic” and sexual slaying of three eight year-old boys in 1993, director Amy Berg (Deliver us from Evil), Peter Jackson and wife and producer Fran Walsh (Lord of the Rings) paint a meticulously grisly picture beginning with the missing children, through to the gruesome discoveries, “confession” and subsequent small town trial. Through courtroom photos, captivating clips and in-depth interviews, Berg powers forward convincingly – and for the first half of the movie, you despise the demonic teenagers accused of the unspeakable crimes.
However, the vivid description of the teenagers’ heinous acts is simply a testament to Berg’s ability to story tell, because partway through the film – she flips the switch. Following the unanimous life convictions of all three teens and suggested death sentence for supposed ringleader Damien Echols, Berg shifts so quickly into telling the real story – the story of three wrongly convicted teenagers, three outcasts who were manipulated into false confessions, a handful of bribed witnesses who lied on the stand before retracting their testimonies and skewed medical examinations and evidence collection. With the next two hours of painstaking description and new firsthand testimonies, West of Memphis carefully tells the story of one of the worst cases of injustice and legal corruption in American history; one that wrongfully stole 18 years of freedom from three men.
Although the fourth film made about the case, Berg, Jackson and Walsh’s investigative filmmaking adds such revealing depth to every facet of every detail from the crime scene through to the three prisoners’ releases in 2011 – including the powerful revelations of a private investigative and forensic team that Jackson and Walsh financed. In what case researcher Martin Hill called the “only crowd-sourced investigation in history,” West of Memphis details the vast civilian action and celebrity involvement (Eddie Vedder, The Dixie Chicks, Patti Smith, Henry Rollins, and Johnny Depp started integral campaigns to free the three men) which largely contributed to the West Memphis Three’s eventual releases. Other essential elements include the story of accused Damien Echols and his wife Lorri, who he met behind bars and who quit her job to prove his innocence. Perhaps the most haunting additions, however, are the new interviews and evidence that bravely point fingers to Terry Hobbs, stepfather of one of the young boys, as guilty of the murders. The evidence against Hobbs is seemingly so undeniable that upon leaving the theatre, it’s heartbreaking to remember that the case hasn’t closed.
With West of Memphis, nearly every factual strand of the investigation and ordeal is revealed, and no witness or mention of judicial failure is unturned; a testament to the new investigators and rallying of filmmakers and campaigners who’ve made it their mission to bring justice to the wrongly convicted threesome and tragically lost children whose deaths remain unsolved. Although by no means a pleasant exploratory narrative after 20 years of hearing about the disturbing crimes – West of Memphis is an important storyline about freedom. While triumphantly telling the tale of the innocent walking free, it unsettles in reminding us that the guilty have too.