In 1994, three US teens were convicted of the murder of three children in the state of Memphis, with the authorities believing the deaths to be related to a series of satanic rituals. Over a decade later, new forensic evidence was presented that suggested that the men were wrongly convicted. This lengthy battle for justice is the new subject of Amy Berg’s second feature documentary, West of Memphis (2012), which meticulously recounts the story of the three individuals who found themselves falsely sentenced – in one case to death, and the other two to life imprisonment – for a crime they did not commit.
Over the resulting years, the ‘Memphis Three’ (as they have became known) have been the subjects of numerous documentaries detailing the murders and those convicted – most notably the Paradise Lost trilogy – all of which have strongly criticised the jury’s verdict. Thus, the three convicts have earned near-mythical status with a huge level of support for the liberal community. West of Memphis aims to take a more established and polished cinematic approach to the material, detailing the entire story.
The first act of the film recounts the lives of the three children murdered and the conviction of Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelly and Jason Baldwin. Archive footage from local TV stations reporting on the events is utilised and – more disturbingly – tapes showing the dead bodies of the victims. Whilst it’s arguable that use of this footage increases the impact of the events, Berg has chosen to repeat the graphic images throughout, showing the horrendous results in grisly detail. The wounds on the victims are clearly pivotal to proving the conviction wrongful, and this is undoubtedly part of the director’s motive, but audiences with little stomach for such details will find themselves averting their eyes when seen time and time again.
By the conclusion of West of Memphis, the question of who actually did kill those three children still hangs in the air. This renders much of the film’s celebratory sign-off – as Damien, the primary focus of the three, walks free shopping for a Halloween costume – somewhat crude. In Berg’s defence, there is a strong focus on Memphis’ bureaucratic and bumbling legal system, but whilst her documentary praises the efforts of those who fought for justice (including director Peter Jackson and wife Fran Walsh, who feature in several interviews and also produce), the fact lingers that redemption has only been served for some.
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