West of Memphis


West of Memphis
From West of Memphis. Photo of Damien Echols by Lisa Waddell © The Commercial Appeal Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

• When the hog-tied, naked bodies of three eight-year-old boy scouts were discovered at the bottom of a ditch in 1993 it didn’t take long for local authorities in the small town of West Memphis, Arkansas, to find their men. Three working class teenage boys – one whose diary revealed a lurid interest in Satanism – became the chief suspects in the crime. A full confession was extracted from one of the boys. Witnesses and a medical officer corroborated evidence that the victims were killed as part of a bloodthirsty, satanic ritual and the prosecutor had little problem convincing the jury of the boys’ guilt. Two of the boys, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, got life sentences while Damien Echols was sentenced to death.

I had but vague recollections, snatched from headlines, of the case of the “West Memphis Three,” but after watching Amy Berg’s simultaneously gripping and appalling documentary West of Memphis, I’m sure it will be etched in my mind for years to come. A humongous miscarriage of justice, it became something of a cause célèbre after rock stars Eddie Vedder, Natalie Maines and Henry Rollins, along with actor Johnny Depp, got behind the campaign for the boys’ release. And Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson anonymously began funding the defence investigation in 2006 with partner Fran Walsh. He also helped produce this riveting film with Echols and wife Lorri Davis, who campaigned on the outside for years for her husband’s release. (Out February 8.)

Berg’s account follows a chronological sequence of events, opening with the official version of the crime and gradually picks away at flaws in the prosecution’s case. It is long at 146 minutes and procedural, but the methodical approach is the film’s strength. Berg had excellent access to the key characters in the case and her compilation of news, police and court archive material, and interviews with key witnesses, make the story feel immediate and powerful.

As the defence team exposes incompetence, coercion, political opportunism and fabrication of evidence, what began as a campaign to exonerate the WM3, becomes a searing indictment of the judicial system. What’s more, the documentary goes on to “solve” the case with key DNA evidence and very plausible witness information. While it’s reassuring that the defence team ultimately wins a victory of sorts, with the release of the wrongfully imprisoned trio after 18 years, there are several stings in the tail. Not least, the case had tragic repercussions for relatives of the victims. And the real killer is still at large.

This month sees the return of the Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival (February 8-17). As well as adrenalin-charged thrills of extreme sports films with names like Ready To Fly, River of No Return or Tempting Fear, there’s an array of mountain-inspired shorts and films that delve into outdoors issues. In the opening film All.I.Can, the challenges of big mountain skiing are compared to the challenges of global climate change (7.30PM, 11th, Rio). You can also catch global warming doc Chasing Ice, with its stunning time-lapse footage of polar and glacier ice in rapid retreat (Rio, 16th, 3PM). The festival takes place at several venues including Centennial Theatre in North Vancouver and Pacific Cinematheque. More details at www.vimff.org

Robert Alstead writes at www.2020Vancouver.com.

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