One of the most compelling pre-Sundance Film Festival storylines this year is Amy Berg’s West Memphis Three documentary, “West of Memphis.” Premiering Friday at The MARC, the Documentary Premiere comes on the heels of the third installment of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s landmark series on the West Memphis Three, “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory.” That film played to acclaim at the Toronto International Film Festival, New York Film Festival and recently aired on HBO (it’s also on the Best Doc Oscar shortlist).
Both documentaries investigate new evidence that has surfaced in the last five years and that eventually lead to the WM3 being released on an Alford Plea last August. They utilize many of the same subjects, footage (“West of Memphis” even uses clips from the “Paradise Lost” films) and come to the same conclusion of who could have possibly been the real killer of the three boys back in 1993.
It’s clear the “West of Memphis” filmmakers strongly believe that Terry Hobbs, stepfather of victim Stevie Branch, should be investigated as a suspect in the murder of the three boys. The film screened for press this week in New York and Los Angeles, but before those screenings began a representative noted that an addional interview would be added to the film before its Park City premiere.
Those involved with the film are staying mum on who that person is, but an 11th-hour change it’s likely to be a big get; the biggest candidate would be Hobbs himself.
This is just the latest in the mixture of confusion and contention surrounding “West of Memphis.”
As reported in The New York Times, after seeing the first “Paradise Lost” film in 2005, Peter Jackson and his wife Fran Walsh began helping the defense team of the West Memphis Three with financial support. This included bankrolling tests revealing that while the DNA of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr. were not at the scene of the crime, Hobbs’ was.
In 2009, Jackson called on Amy Berg to begin work on a documentary that would reveal the new findings and hopefully exonerate the WM3 (Jackson is a producer on the film). Friction between Berg and Berlinger/Sinofsky built after Pam Hobbs, ex-wife of Terry, signed an agreement with Berg making her unable to be interviewed for any other film. Unable to work out an agreement with Jackson and Berg, Berlinger/Sinofsky felt they had to protect their film and decided to make a similar agreement with some of their subjects, blocking Berg from talking to them.
Documentary filmmaker AJ Schnack points out this is hardly the first time two documentaries have been made on the same subject, but understands the mixed feelings to why “West of Memphis” was made.
“It’s certainly fair for filmmakers to tackle subjects that have been covered before — as far as I can tell, Nick Broomfield holds no grudge that I made a film about Kurt Cobain,” said Schnack referring to his film “Kurt Cobain: About A Son” and Broomfield’s “Kurt & Courtney.”
“I’m pretty sure that both of us assume that other films will be made about him in the future,” said Schnack. “What makes this case so unusual is that the West Memphis Three story is intrinsically linked to Joe and Bruce’s films. Damien may have been put to death if not for the light that HBO shined on the case and Peter Jackson is on record as saying that he became interested in the case because he saw the first ‘Paradise Lost.’”
Both “Paradise Lost 3” and “West of Memphis” wear advocacy on their sleeves. A significant difference between the projects is “Memphis”producers Jackson and Walsh funded the defense; West Memphis Three member Damien Echols, and his wife, Lorri Davis are also producers.
There’s ceratinly more to come on this story as Jackson, Berg, Echols and Davis are all coming to Park City to promote the film (and Berlinger is in town for his doc, “Under African Skies,” which is also in the Documentary Premieres section). It’s also hard to pinpoint the buyer who would take on “West of Memphis;” HBO Documentary would be a natural contender for a high-profile Sundance doc, but that division and its leader, Sheila Nevins, are inextricably linked to the “Paradise Lost” series.
Which finally leads to the question everyone’s asked: Can these two films live in the same space at the same time?
“I think it’s very interesting that two feature documentaries are coming out around the same time on this case. But why not?” says International Documentary Association’s executive director Michael Lumpkin. “I don’t see a problem with filmmakers taking on the same topic, case or incident. This happens in journalism quite frequently. The positive side is that there was enough financial support for both of these films, and both will be seen by large audiences.”
Additional reporting by Eric Kohn.