Tuesday, December 4, 2012

DVD Interview: “Paradise Lost” Director Joe Berlinger

Joe Berlinger (photo: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images North America)

Paradise Lost Trilogy—Collectors’ Edition (4 DVDs)
Available from Docurama

Although it wasn’t until celebrities like Johnny Depp and Eddie Vedder got involved that the plight of the wrongly accused “West Memphis 3”—innocent teenagers sentenced for the grisly murders of three young boys in Arkansas—became national news, it was Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s Paradise Lost films that first brought attention to the miscarriage of justice.

Now, nearly two decades after the crimes were committed and a year after the men were finally set free in a bizarre “Alford Plea” deal in which they left prison even if evidence suggested guilt, the three films—Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, Paradise Lost 2: Revelations and Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory—are being released in a four-disc DVD set that includes bonus materials like additional interviews with the principals, Berlinger discusses the long period of filming the ever-shifting story and advocating for the “West Memphis 3.”

Kevin Filipski: After 20 years working on three films about the same charged subject, how does it feel to have finished the trilogy?
Joe Berlinger: Three films over nearly two decades—obviously we didn’t film every day, so I managed to do other things like raise a family and work on other projects. I was 30 when we started and 50 now. The reason we did the trilogy with all the bonus material on DVD is because it’s a great way to wrap the series in a bow: but there will be no Paradise Lost 4. It’s now a crowded marketplace: Johnny Depp optioned Damien Echols’ memoir, Atom Egoyan is making a film, and there’s a new documentary, West of Memphis. It was an emotional and psychological journey to stick with this story for so long, and we felt an obligation to them until they got out of prison. I feel good about what we accomplished, and it’s time to move on.

KF: Can you explain how you felt about the case when you first began filming and how long it took for you to believe that the “West Memphis Three” were actually innocent?
JB: It’s ironic that we originally went to Arkansas thinking we were making a film about guilty teenagers: the first reports had it as “open and shut.” After months of digging into evidence and meeting the accused, we knew something was definitely wrong and were convinced of their innocence before the trial started. We were the contrarian voices: that everyone else was against them is an understatement. The press called for blood, and one story after another polluted the jury pool. But Paradise Lost didn’t come out right away—after we edited 150 hours of footage, it premiered at Sundance two years after they were put in prison in 1994. We agonized over their rotting in prison for two years—little did we know! The film created a slow spark—we won awards but felt guilty getting pats on the back knowing they were in prison. Nobody did anything until Kathy Bakken, who worked for an ad agency doing the poster for Paradise Lost, saw it and started the website wm3.org. The long editing period helped the case in the long run: the internet was becoming a useful social media tool and her site attracted worldwide attention that exploded interest in the case, and many held protests to keep the case alive.

KF: What’s your take on the deal made so they could finally be freed from prison?
JB: It’s horrifying and extremely cowardly but—in a perverse way—a fitting conclusion. This story’s about the dark side of American justice and best and worst in human behavior. There’s overwhelming evidence that some involved in the case were more interested in protecting careers than acknowledging mistakes. Jason Baldwin did not want to accept the plea but to save Damien’s life—he was on death row and in failing health—Jason went against his principles: he felt they’d be cleared but he accepted this bitter pill due to Echols’ predicament. Gross malfeasance went on in this case, along with a selfish justice system worried more about careers than the truth. Not only is it a moral injustice, it avoids prosecutorial liability and any unlawful conviction lawsuits. There’s no accountability and no financial resources were given to the men upon release, which is wrong.

KF: This case is still unsolved. How do you feel about that?
JB: One horrible result is that Arkansas is telling the victims’ families they are not finding the real killer. In the second film—the most flawed because it was advocacy in search of a story—we followed suspicions against Mark Byers (father of one of the boys), and the last film follows Terry Hobbs (stepfather of one of the boys), but we’re not saying anyone is the killer, only that authorities should investigate. I am certain, and the entire series speaks about, that these guys did not commit the crime and received a grossly unfair, imbalanced trial. The biggest lesson for me is the utter immorality of the death penalty: not the usual argument about the state taking a life, but that the justice system is run by extremely fallible human beings who are subject to prejudices that make it impossible to apply it fairly. Clearly, without our films, Echols would be dead because he ran out of appeals: but in 2001, Arkansas passed a DNA statute which allowed him another chance. But it was extremely costly, and if he hadn’t had supporters, he would not have been able to mount an appeal. If a death penalty puts one innocent person to death, you can’t have it.

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