This is why Judge Erich Asperschlager never wears black.
Our reviews of Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (published August 11th, 2012), Paradise Lost: Collector's Edition (published December 5th, 2008), and Paradise Lost: The Child Murders At Robin Hood Hills (published January 9th, 2006) are also available.
"Is this justice? Is this what you've been looking for?"
There has never been a better time to watch documentaries. Subscription streaming video services like Netflix are teeming with docs about everything from food safety to animatronic collectors. If there's a subculture or niche hobby, chances are someone has put together 90 minutes about it and made it available online. These human interest stories are well and good, but they don't stack up against the handful of documentaries that live up to the genre's name. The makers of these films, through a combination of doggedness, skill, and dumb luck, create a document of significance. These documentaries are amazing. They can be sobering. Sometimes, they can even change lives.
When filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky went down to Arkansas in 1993 to film what would become the HBO documentary Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, they thought they were telling the story of a trio of teenaged monsters on trial for the brutal killing of three 8-year-olds. As the trials unfolded, however, they found something far scarier. Where the media and local opinion had embraced the narrative put forward by the police that the murders were part of a Satanic ritual, the filmmakers found a community in hysteria. In a rush to find meaning in a meaningless tragedy, teenagers Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley, Jr. were arrested and eventually convicted of crimes they did not commit—because they wore black, had long hair, and listened to heavy metal music.
Paradise Lost is a raw film, made up of footage shot when tensions were highest. Berlinger and Sinofsky present the story of the murders, the investigation, and subsequent trials from the perspective of the accused, the victims' families, law enforcement, and the attorneys. There is no room for outside perspective in this story told by insiders in the heat of the moment. If this film had been the end of Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley's story, it would stand among the most gripping and important documentaries ever made. But it wasn't the end.
After Paradise Lost aired on HBO in 1996, the story inspired a group of justice-seekers to start a movement to "Free the West Memphis Three." They leveraged the burgeoning Internet to start the website WM3.org. They invested their time and money into researching the case, and doing what they could to get the convictions overturned. Their efforts and the general aftermath after the film's release were covered by Berlinger and Sinofsky in the 2000 follow-up Paradise Lost 2: Revelations. Where the first Paradise Lost is presented without analysis or commentary, Revelations is almost nothing but. Perspective is provided by West Memphis Three, their supporters, and the lawyers and outside experts who work tirelessly to prove the trio's innocence. The filmmakers also spend a lot of time with a stepfather of one of the murdered boys, an outspoken critic of efforts to free the Three—and also a likely suspect in the crime. Where the first film ends with suggestion of this man's guilt, Revelations actually builds a case against him. The film has too many twists and turns to spoil here (one reason I won't mention the suspect by name), but there is as much to be learned about truth and justice from his story as from what happened to Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley.
For all the support the West Memphis Three received after the release of the first two films, it would take another decade for their story to reach its messy conclusion. Berlinger and Sinofsky completed their trilogy in 2011 with Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, a film that recaps the case from 1994 up through their release in 2010. Where Revelations seethes with righteous anger, Purgatory finds the accused and the major players in a holding pattern. Some of the participants have changed completely, while others cling stubbornly to a false history that makes them feel better about what was done to the now 30-plus year old prisoners. That combination of accepted wisdom about the West Memphis Three's wrongful conviction with an unwillingness to accept responsibility makes for an ending of mixed emotions. They men are released, but not exonerated; they are forced to admit guilt for something they didn't do so powerful people can save face; and the real murderer is never found. (The film introduces another suspect based on new DNA findings, although we should know by now not to assume anyone's guilt based on inconclusive evidence.)
If Paradise Lost was a fictional film, the story would end with the West Memphis Three's triumphant release from prison, all charges dropped. Those who lied to imprison them would be put on trial for their part, and the killer would, finally, be caught. But this is real life. Although the story of the West Memphis Three has a happy ending, it is not a Hollywood ending. Issues of justice and fairness and the mob mentality that can arise in the wake of tragedy are just as relevant as ever. As long as we allow scapegoats to cover for a failing judicial system, there will be more stories like this one. The Paradise Lost Trilogy isn't just a cautionary tale. It's a reminder that justice requires vigilance, and that in life there are no easy answers. The West Memphis Three were freed after nearly two decades of living hell, and that's considered a happy ending. How many innocent people don't have documentarians around to tell their stories? As chilling as Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley, Jr.'s ordeal was, consider what might have happened to them if not for a pair of committed filmmakers and the legions of supporters who came to their aid.
After several single and double-disc releases, the three Paradise Lost films are finally available in one set, as The Paradise Lost Trilogy: Collector's Edition. Each documentary has its own disc, identical (except for new disc art) to the films' individual releases. Paradise Lost and Revelations are presented in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, capturing the look of each time period, with 2.0 Stereo mixes to handle the often difficult dialogue, and Metallica's original soundtracks. Purgatory looks even better, with a late-2000s upgrade to a 1.78:1 widescreen image and a 5.1 surround mix.
For such a landmark documentary series, these original releases of these films were surprisingly light on bonus features—especially Revelations, which is limited to a photo gallery and filmmaker bios. Purgatory has a more generous collection of deleted scenes and an interview with Sinofsky and Berlinger. The Trilogy adds a 20-page booklet with archival photos and an impassioned essay by Joe Berlinger, and a fourth bonus disc with about an hour of new extras:
• Paradise Lost 3 Deleted Scenes: "Jessie and Susie: Then vs. Now" (9:31), "Jon Mark Byers on the Paradise Lost Films" (6:33), and "Fathers Make Amends" (3:19).
• "Jason Baldwin's First Interview as a Free Man with Joe Berlinger" (31:00)
• "1993 â€˜Lost' Footage" (19:17): "Jessie Pre-Trial Meeting with his Lawyer," "Damien Echols," "Jason Baldwin," and "West Memphis Chief Inspector Gary Gitchell."
Even if The Paradise Lost Trilogy: Collector's Edition doesn't add the audio commentaries fans have been asking for, it is without doubt the best way to experience one of the most important and influential documentaries of the past 20 years. There is nothing easy about watching these films, but they deserve to be seen—not as a thrilling true crime story or as a celebration of three men who overcame adversity, but as a reminder that affecting social change is a noble and difficult process. The story of the West Memphis Three is far from over, and will be as long as three innocent men bear the blame for a killer who remains at large. Perhaps that's for the best. If their story had the happy ending they deserve, we could forget it ever happened. These films force us to remember their past, in hopes it will shape the future.
Not guilty! No matter what the state of Arkansas says.
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