Five Questions with Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory Directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky
In the mid ’90s filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky traveled to West Memphis, Arkansas for a documentary they were making for HBO on the gruesome murders of three boys and the trial of the three teens who were charged. The film, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, gave the trail nationwide interest as Berlinger and Sinofsky revelaed a case that was hardly open and shut. Coerced confessions as well as questionable evidence and testimony made viewers uncertain if the three defendants — Jessie Misskelley, Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin — were guilty and the fight to free the West Memphis 3 was born. The 18 year journey for the filmmakers that has led to the sequel, Paradise Lost 2: Revelations and support from celebrities like Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and Johnny Depp was to conclude with Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory. But weeks before finishing the cut for TIFF news broke that the West Memphis 3 would be freed. With a new ending premiering at the New York Film Festival, Berlinger and Sinofsky must now decide if this is when they put down their cameras or if there’s a story after the freeing of the West Memphis 3.
Filmmaker: Tell us a little about what your film is about?
Berlinger: It’s rare that filmmakers have an opportunity to cover a story with an 18 year perspective and involvement, where the passage of time changes the nature of the information you have gathered. Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory chronicles the 18-year odyssey of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley, three teens incarcerated for a horrifying crime they maintain they did not commit. In our latest installment, we tried to make the film a self-sufficient viewing experience, so that you don’t have to have seen the previous films to fully comprehend this complicated case. However, for fans of the series, old facts are reexamined, new evidence is revealed and new suspects are scrutinized.
Sinofsky: Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory is a continuation of the trilogy which started with Paradise Lost and Paradise Lost 2: Revelations. Beyond the events, the movie presents questions about how justice is served in America and questions about culpability. Who is guilty? Who is innocent?
Filmmaker: Do you think this will be the final movie you will do on the West Memphis 3?
Berlinger: For us, it feels like the end of an era after devoting nearly two decades to this case. However, there is a lot of talk of doing a fourth film and if HBO believes there is an audience for a fourth film, we certainly want to keep that door open. Maybe it’s the start of a new era with a happier conclusion.
Sinofsky: As far as we know, this is the final movie about the West Memphis Three. But the first question on everybody’s mind is -– now, what happens? How do these men’s lives continue beyond the interruption of eighteen years of prison? How does it feel for Damien to walk from death row into a marriage he has never experienced before? There is a tremendous amount of interest in these men’s lives. The possibility of a fourth movie, to explore what happens after the West Memphis Three, is present in more than a few minds.
Filmmaker: What do you hope audiences will take away from this installment?
Berlinger: Sadly, the American justice system has devolved to the point where justice is not about the search for the truth but who presents the best story — and who has the most money to tell that story. And capital punishment is just plain wrong. Beyond the moral issue of taking a life, we see in this film just how flawed and fallible the system is, so it is a moral outrage to allow any one to be put to death in a system that makes so many mistakes.
Sinofsky: Before the WM3 were released we were hoping that this film would help in building the case for a new trial, and that eventually each one of them would go free. This didn’t happen, obviously. The three walked away free, but they each had to claim they were guilty. But we need to celebrate what happened and the fact that these men were freed, with the support of the parents of two of the victims. The movie teaches us about forgiveness, about the possibility of coming back from whichever path one has chosen and re-looking at reality. John Byers started the trilogy ranting over his son’s murder site that he wished the worse on the accused and would urinate on their own graves. He ends it by speaking out against the injustice that they had to claim guilt in order to get released and that they are innocent. This goes beyond forgiveness. It illuminates a path we might all want to consider — how it is possible to be wrong, and also possible to come back and choose what is right, and that what matters in the end are deep-rooted notions of justice and moral right.
Filmmaker: What was your reaction when you heard the WM3 might go free?
Berlinger: Shock, panic, delight, tears and indignation. Shock because the wheels of justice had been moving so slowly for two decades; panic because we were mixing and color-correcting a finished Paradise Lost 3 for its Toronto premiere and now we had a new ending to contend with (a great problem to have!); delight at the idea these guys were getting out of jail; tears when I actually saw it happen and indignation at the raw deal they had to accept: While the men have their freedom, they were only able to bargain for their freedom by entering “Alford” guilty pleas — basically a rarely deployed legal maneuver that allows a criminal defendant to plead guilty for legal purposes but still maintain their innocence. In exchange for this guilty plea, the men were sentenced to time served, with an additional suspended sentence imposed if they violate the law over the next ten years. Therefore, they technically remain convicts who have not been officially cleared or pardoned — a seemingly transparent attempt by the State of Arkansas to avoid lawsuits and political fallout. No compensation for their lost youth, no prosecutorial accountability. Worse, the real killer walks free.
Sinofsky: I still remember that day and the shock and surprise. There was an element of disbelief when we first heard the news. We were all focused on the evidentiary hearing in December, and this was a completely unexpected turn of events. I could not quite believe they would go free. I waited until the actual pronouncement of the judge before calling my wife to let them know they were free. Of course, she knew that might happen, because of the rushed trip to Arkansas. The whole experience, frankly, was unreal. It probably took me a week to come back down to earth. It was a dream come true.
Filmmaker: When you made the first Paradise Lost back in 1996 did you ever think 18 years later you’d still be investigating this story?
Berlinger: When we first went down to West Memphis, Arkansas, we thought we were about to make a film about guilty teenagers because that is how the local press was spinning it. After a few months of embedding ourselves into the community before the trials began, we realized they were innocent — we never imagined it would take three films and eighteen years for the State of Arkansas to agree with us.
Sinofsky: When we went down to Arkansas, for the first movie, we thought the three were guilty. We were committed to tell the story until its end — that is our approach to every one of our documentaries. But there were too many loose ends and as the story unfolded, we became convinced of the three young men’s innocence. At the end of the trial, when they were sent to jail and Damien to death row, the story had not come to its natural conclusion. As people saw Paradise Lost, they also felt there was more to the case. The first film led to many questions and it became a cause. WM3 introduced celebrities and regular folks to the situation. Without these people, the WM3 may have been forgotten. We are proud that the first film kept things open, otherwise Damien would probably be dead at this time.