“Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory” at New York Film Festival

(from left to right) director Bruce Sinofsky, subject Damien Echols and director Joe Berlinger.

On Monday October 10, the New York Film Festival hosted the world premiere of “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory,” the new documentary directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. The event took place at Alice Tully Hall.

Richard Pena, Chairman of the Selection Committee, for the festival, introduced the film by saying that this was going to be an extraordinary evening that we would not forget.  He was right.   Not only did “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory” prove to be an incredible finish to the “Paradise Lost” films, but the evening featured the first public appearance by the Memphis Three: Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley and Jason Baldwin.  They were just released from prison this past August after having served nearly 20 years for a crime they did not commit.  It was mind boggling to think that just two months ago Echols was on death row, while Misskelley and Baldwin were serving life sentences, and now they were all here at Lincoln Center.  Sheila Nevins, head of HBO Documentaries, who stuck with the project for nearly 20 years, believing in the innocence of the three men said, “It was our job to keep going and going until one day they could be at the film festival at Lincoln Center.”  Following the screening, the three men, along with the filmmakers and Nevins, received a well deserved, sustained, standing ovation.

In 1994 Echols,  Misskelley and Baldwin, then teenagers, were convicted of the 1993 murders of three eight-year-old boys: Steven Branch, Michael Moore and Christopher Byers.  The murders took place in West Memphis, Arkansas.  The Memphis Three, as they were eventually called, were convicted by local media, prior to the starts of their trials.  Everything seemed to fit.  Echols wore black, listened to heavy metal music and was rumored to be a devil worshipper.  The murders were labeled a satanic ritual.  The town, largely poor, religious and uneducated, bought into the satanist image that the media portrayed. For the other two boys it was guilt by their association with Echols.

“Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory” is a riveting, infuriating, heart pounding, jaw dropping, frightening entry in the “Paradise Lost” documentary trilogy. Truth proves to be stranger and more compelling than fiction: a questionable confession, an incredibly biased jury foreman, a judge who, despite new DNA evidence, repeatedly denies appeals, continued to keep these men in jail.  In addition the films demonstrate the role that the media has played in this case.  Berlinger said, “The media has played a tremendous role in this case, initially quite negative and then quite positive. Basically the entire press corps, at the time, were young, inexperienced and found it much easier to tell the Devil worshipping, blood drinking, satanist story than to really do any kind of investigation.”  Over the years the media’s point of view shifted as worldwide attention and celebrity support, including actor Johnny Depp and The Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Maines, among other celebrities, took up the cause while a grass roots organization, The Memphis 3 Support Group, took root.

“Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory” has been brilliantly edited, by Alyse Spiegel, who has had to juggle nearly twenty years of footage.  Spiegel has created an amazing juxtaposition of what certain figures in this drama were like at the time of the trial and what they are like now.  Throughout the film the subjects age back and forth 20 years, showing how the past informs the present while the present sheds light on the past.  It is fascinating to see how the subjects’ attitudes have changed, mellowed or remained vehemently the same over the years.  For example, John Mark Byers, the stepfather of Christopher Byers, who, in the first film, was absolutely convinced that the three teenagers murdered his stepson, is asked about the media bandwagon that surrounded the trials nearly 20 years ago.  He admits, “I led the band wagon.”  Byers is now convinced that the three are innocent.

Echols points out that the “Paradise Lost” films, and the publicity and support they have generated, are what kept him from being executed.  In one of the film’s strongest moments Echols says that the state would rather just murder him, sweep him under the rug and be done with it.

“Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory” premieres on HBO in 2012.

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About unpaidfilmcritic

Up until 2009 Seth Shire spent nearly two decades in the New York film industry as a post production supervisor of feature films. Highlights include working on the films of Martin Scorsese, James Toback and Spike Lee. Since leaving the film industry Seth has expanded into new and varied areas where he has found a great deal of satisfaction. Seth currently teaches in the Sociology Department of CUNY Queens College. His courses include "Mass Media and Popular Culture," "Introduction to Sociology," and "Sociology of Cinema" where he is a very popular teacher. Seth is also the film critic for "Town & Village," a Manhattan weekly newspaper, a position he has held for the past six years. Seth gives back to his community through volunteer teaching at Manhattan's "The Caring Community," a center for senior citizens, where he teaches a very popular course on documentaries called "The Golden Age of the Documentary. In the fall of 2010 Seth taught "Critical Reading and Writing" at Parsons School of Design. He has also taught "Cinema Studies" at the New York Film Academy. Seth lives in Stuyvesant Town, in Manhattan.

Posted on October 11, 2011, in New, New York Film Festival 2011 and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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