As with any art form, there are classics of the form that every student of the subject should know. It doesn’t necessarily need to be a favorite, but it should be known as a benchmark to which compare all other art forms. For documentaries, there are such films that define documentary filmmaking. The Paradise Lost trilogy are such films.
True Crime is almost always a fascinating subject to document. There’s the mindsets of the perpetrators, the lives of the victim, the chronicle of the trial, and the media reactions to include, which all contain their drama. Fictional Crime shows continually dominate the TV ratings. For the first film in the series, Paradise Lost, The Child Murders in the Robin Hood Hills (1996), filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky couldn’t have asked for a more compelling story; it was serendipitous to the filmmakers for finding such a story arc. They went in to film a trial of an already interesting case, and what they ended up with was better than any Emmy-winning show.
But first, some background. The town of West Memphis, Arkansas, is, unfortunately as you would imagine, not very progressive or cosmopolitan. Religion pervades the small town, any thought or form of expression that is different is not accepted, and much of the town is encased in poverty that seems to be the ultimate fate for many of the residents. One afternoon, the mutilated and abused bodies of three seven-year-old boys were found in the woods by a creek. This would be a huge undertaking for any police investigation in any town, but the understaffed, inexperienced police of this small town were in over their heads. The collection of evidence was rife with errors and carelessness; the investigation was spotty at best.
Without any hard physical evidence, coupled with the pressure to find a perpetrator to placate the sorrow and anger of the grieving parents, attention was turned to three “troublemaker” teens: Jesse Miskelley, Jason Baldwin, and the supposed ringleader, Damien Echols. Echols was what was considered a goth, wore a trench coat, died his hair black, and was considered evil by the small-minded town. Anyone with sense would identify him as a brooding teenager just trying to assert his individuality, but in a small town where Christianity pervades, Echols was trouble.
Because the mutilation of the boys supposedly resembled satanic behavior, and from testimony from others about the trio’s behavior, the three boys were arrested without any physical evidence. The town needed villains, the police needed to close the case. Jesse Miskelley was said to have an IQ that made him officially mentally retarded, and the police exploited this by forcing a confession after twelve hours of intimidation and coercion. He was tried separately than the other two, and both trials are chronicled in the film. We are shown the preparation by the defense team, the reactions of the parents of both the accused and the victims, and interviews with the three boys, who were come to be known as the West Memphis Three.
What unfolds is fascinating, heartbreaking, and infuriating. The prosecutor barely does anything to connect the boys to the crime scene, they concentrate on convincing the jury that Damien Echols is a satanist, and the other boys are evil. The boys’ parents believe their children are innocent, and struggle with their powerlessness. John Mark Buyers, the stepfather of one of the murdered boys, could not serve as a better villain if he tried. His dramatic grieving, church sermons, and displays of his guns make a very convincing case that he may in fact be the murderer.
Paradise Lost is a film about disruption of justice, the failure of the court system, prejudice in a small town, the egos and abuse of power by the police, and parents’ love. The viewer feels frustrated as the trial goes on because of the knowledge of all the wrong that is going on. The trial and the prosecutor’s continually ridiculous tactics make you think there’s no way they can convict them… but alas, they do. Echols is sentenced to death and the others are given life in prison. They are taken away in handcuffs and bulletproof vests, and the realization that these are mere children is infuriating and upsetting. Sure, they could be lying and fooling everyone, but in their appearance and their interviews, their body language and sincerity would be impossible to fake.
Watching these boys go through the trial is heartbreaking. Echols, despite being a bit of a wise-ass, honestly tries to answer questions about his religious beliefs, and in fact clarifies that he is Wiccan, not a Satanist. The prosecution only brings in a hack “religious expert” to instill the fear of a boy who seems to be just trying to be different in a town of sameness. Jesse Misskelley hides his face during the whole trial, ashamed of his forced confession, and stoically refuses to testify against his friends, even if it meant freedom for him. Jason Baldwin is the most heartbreaking to watch. Barely bigger than the boys he supposedly murdered, his lawyer asks him about where he’d like to visit once the whole ordeal is over. “Disneyland,” he replies because he is still a mere child himself. Echols’s defense lawyer works tirelessly to discount the infuriatingly subjective evidence the prosecution comes up with, challenging the assumption that all defense lawyers are sleazy and greedy, looking to help murderers go free.
This documentary had a large affect on the viewers, who after seeing Paradise Lost, affected many to take action on what they saw as an injustice. Advocacy groups for the West Memphis Three rose and several people from all over the country gave up their jobs to fight for the cause, and the second film, Paradise Lost 2: Revelations chronicles this struggle. Other key players from the first film are revisited, including Mark Byers who has become more and more unstable. Furthermore, his wife has recently died under suspicious circumstances, solidifying him as a villain. One almost feels sorry for him, because his existence is so miserable, but even the viewer needs to pinpoint a victim. The parents of the three convicted struggle with the verdict, and the former defense attorney reflects back on what he sees as failures. In a story twist that Law & Order could have written, the filmmakers discover a bloodied knife of Byers, creating even more doubt in the verdict.
The third film, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory continues the struggle to get the Supreme Court to open the case. By this point, DNA-based evidence and more knowledge about the psychology of witness interrogation has been studied and been brought into the discussion in trials, two things that were never considered previously. Upon reflection, the many mistakes and oversights during the original trial were astounding. After a long struggle, the West Memphis Three were released and absolved of all charges, but only after spending eighteen years on death row knowing they were completely innocent. It’s a happy ending to be sure, but still the injustices and ignorance is infuriating. [As a side note, the three men seem to be getting on with life. Misskelley and Baldwin quietly went back to live with their families. Damien Echols published a book and is now besties with Johnny Depp.]
The Paradise Lost trilogies have all the hallmarks of an effective documentary: providing a story, capturing emotions, and making the viewer care about the subject. The filmmakers set out, in the first film, to be silent observers of the trial, present the footage to the viewer and let it speak for itself. Because it had such an impact on the viewers and the outrage surrounding this case, the filmmakers and the film became a part of the story, in a meta way that they may not have predicted. Even more admirable, it was done in a way that was not for their own fame and notoriety, but to bring justice. Of course, the accolades certainly didn’t hurt.
I implore you to set aside six or seven hours of your life to this trilogy. It truly is essential viewing.