Thursday, 14 February 2013
FILM REVIEW: WEST OF MEMPHIS
I believe in the law and support the police, but sometimes the law is an ass and justice isn't so much blind as selectively blinkered. West of Memphis, Amy Berg's compelling documentary about the 1993 Robin Hood Hills murders in Arkansas, is proof-positive of those latter sentiments and that when it comes to the prosecution of certain crimes, truth -- and logic -- are the first casualties.
Understandably, community passions were running high after the bodies of three 8-year-old boys were pulled from a river, one of them bound and each with signs of sexual abuse and mutilation. "Satanic cult" some people cried, with echoes of 1600's Salem, and like people for generations since those times, a scapegoat, rather than a culprit, was sought.
Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelly -- teenagers, outsiders, and, one of them (Echols), heaven forbid, a Goth -- were arrested and charged with the murders with no evidence to support the arrests but on the word of a forced confession from Misskelly, who just happened to be mentally challenged.
West of Memphis details how, over the ensuing 18 years, the West Memphis 3, as they became dubbed, sat in prison while family, friends and supporters (including celebrities (Johhny Depp), musicians (Eddie Veder), and doco exec producers, Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh) fought the good fight for their release.
And all the while the Arkansas legal system turned a blind eye and a deaf ear; not just to the pleas but the subsequent DNA evidence (not available in 1993) which proved all three were innocent, and that the perpetrator was much closer to home. A great deal of West of Memphis, and the team fighting for the 3's release, is devoted to doing the law's job for them; mounting the case for another suspect with evidence and basic questions which police and prosecutors seem to have ignored, and blithely continue to do so.
These events have been depicted in three previous documentaries -- the Paradise Lost trilogy -- but it matters not if you haven't seen those films. Amy Berg's 147-minute, exhaustive doco does an exemplary job of detailing the case from beginning to end. It also benefits from hindsight, with two decades of material to draw from and its being made after the somewhat bitter-sweet victory of the West Memphis 3 in 2011.
West of Memphis will infuriate you just as many of the talking heads -- mostly representing the law -- will frustrate you; you'll guffaw at the resistance of the police and prosecutors to get at the truth of the crime. And that's the real crime depicted in West of Memphis: three little boys lost their lives (and three young men lost half of theirs) and the law steadfastly refuses to do anything about it. The law truly can be an ass.