Saturday, 17 September 2011
TIFF 2011 - Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory
By Alan Bacchus
Perhaps only Michael Apted's Up series could compare to the effect of Berlinger/Sinofsky's 15-years-in-the-making documentary. This third film surrounding the now famous West Memphis Three case is a triumph, a powerful compendium of all three films combining evidence compiled over the years, which ultimately brought justice to three men wrongly accused. PL3 is a haunting, tragic and frustrating look at not only a flawed justice system, but also the cloud of ignorance, bigotry and hatred that has warped the minds of the angered members of the West Memphis community.
To recap, in 1996 these same filmmakers produced the first Paradise Lost movie, which recounted the murder of three young boys in the woods of West Memphis Arkansas, and the outrageous, inquisition-style witch hunt that resulted in three Goth-like youths, Jessie Misskelley, Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin, convicted and sentenced to either life in prison or, in the case of Echols, a death sentence. The success of this film led to the creation of a public plea to retry and exonerate the West Memphis Three. In 2000, Berlinger/Sinofsky returned to the case to update us on new evidence and theories that arose after ‘96, including suspecting one of the fathers, Mark Byers, as the murderer. Unfortunately, despite overwhelming evidence and public outcry, the West Memphis Three are still in prison.
Berlinger and Sinofsky deftly move us between the years from the murders and today. We don't need to see the previous films to follow the story, nor do we get an obligatory or expository recap. It's like the pair are remaking their films from a new point of view without compromising the integrity of the first two.
Some characters remain the same, others are remarkably different. Mark Byers, previously the ringleader against the egregious accusations of Satanism, which was the apparent 'motivation' for the murders, does a remarkable about-face by taking responsibility and apologizing for his ignorant reactions. A new suspect arises, someone we've been looking right in the face all these years, and it’s a revelation that provides a chilling new reflection on these events.
Paradise Lost 3 blurs all barriers of subject and observer, which contributes to the feeling that we’re participating in the lives of the people involved in real-time. Dramatic news about the case emerged prior to this festival, which causes us to watch the film differently, resulting in a feeling of real-time journalism but with a wholly cinematic artistic treatment.
Consistent with the tone of the original films, Berlinger/Sinofsky cast a net of dark, brooding horror, which fits in well with the witch hunt theme and allegory to the Salem Witch Trials. The new songs contributed by Metallica are magnificently chosen, conveying the same tone of grungy melancholy, both disturbing and thoughtful, as in the previous films.
The one frustration comes at the very end, as we know that the final outcome of this case occurred mere days after the completion of the film. According to HBO, a new cut will be made to incorporate the very important postscript.
I doubt this is even the end of the story. The lives of the three men back in society would make an ideal fourth chapter, hopefully more triumphant and inspiring than the previously three.
The record of these films, this third one in particular, is a monumentally important achievement. Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory features something we're wholly aware of at the beginning, middle and end of the film, resulting in a cinema experience unlike any other.