When tragedy strikes a small town, emotion often trounces reason in the reactions that follow. Those on either sides of the victim/perpetrator divide become ensconced in the aftermath, in a battle played out in the streets, press and courts – or in this instance, in three powerful and illuminating documentaries.
Over an 18 year period, the potent and powerful Paradise Lost trilogy examines the impact of a shocking crime within a close-knit Arkansas community. From the confronting police video that opens the first film, to the compelling conclusion more than six and a half hours later, the series ponders the response to the heinous acts committed against three West Memphis school children.
After establishing the details surrounding the 1993 deaths of eight year-olds Christopher Byers, Michael Moore and Stevie Branch early in the opening instalment, the features explore the plight of the three teens accused of the childrens’ murders. Predicated on a questionable confession, circumstantial evidence and their nonconformist status (which includes their wearing black clothing and listening to heavy metal music), Jessie Misskelley, Jason Baldwin and Damien Echols were charged, tried and convicted of the reputed Satanic ritual killings. The culmination of initial legal proceedings was far from the end of the story, with their efforts to assert their innocence spanning two decades. As the filmmakers delve into all aspects of the extraordinary case, more questions are posed than are answered.
With an evocative and apt title shared with John Milton’s epic opus about the fall of man, the three unsettling films – Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996), Paradise Lost: Revelations (2000) and Paradise Lost: Purgatory (2011) – more than earn such comparison to the lauded literary work. Contemplating the descent of societal notions of impartiality and integrity in answer to an indescribable, incomprehensible event, as well as the resulting reaction against panic-stricken prejudices, the trilogy weaves immorality and idolatry into its chronicle of the deterioration of human innocence.
Accordingly, the efforts from Metallica: Some Kind of Monster co-directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky encompass issues of police incompetence, profiling by appearance, legal oversights and jury inconsistencies, as illustrated in the news and trial footage presented. Accompanied by the familiar refrains of the rock band, and intertwined with insightful interviews with families, experts, onlookers and the men at the centre of the case, these three documentaries dissect the accusations, ideas and evidence involved, amplified by the increasing attention attracted by activist, media and celebrity involvement.
With the films responsible for much of the public outcry over the evident miscarriage of justice, the trio of features provide a pertinent and poignant example of the advocacy potential of filmmaking. Indeed, it is impossible not to be moved to act against the absorbing events unveiled in these incisive offerings, nor to be left in anything but a state of emotional devastation at their conclusion. Watched in tandem, the trilogy is harrowing and heartbreaking, as well as gripping, galvanising, rousing and riveting. As the third offering celebrates its Academy Award nomination, audiences should relish the opportunity to witness the series, for the striking and sophisticated Paradise Lost is undoubtedly one of the finest examples of the documentary medium.
Rating: 5 stars
Directors: Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky
Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, USA, 1996, rated MA
Paradise Lost: Revelations, USA, 2000, unclassified 18+
Paradise Lost: Purgatory, USA, 2011, unclassified 18+
The Pardise Lost trilogy - including the Australian premiere of Paradise Lost: Purgatory - screens at ACMI from March 1 – 4