Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996)

Documentary about the trial(s) of the West Memphis Three is disturbing for a variety of reasons, not all of which have to do with the lopsided miscarriage of justice being presented. A lot of the film's effect has to do with the dispassionate stance assumed by filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. They aim for observational rather than confrontational, which results in an unflinching documentation of the horrifying nature of the murders; more importantly, because of this non-obtrusive style, they get candid confessions and strange moments on screen that would elude many other documentary filmmakers. (The produce-shooting scene is a bizarre, uncomfortable scene of catharsis that becomes doubly disconcerting given what we later learn about Mark Byers, one of the shooters.) The most crucial aspect of this filmmaking approach, though, is the veneer of evenhandedness. Berlinger and Sinofsky give equal time to all concerned sides - both the victims and the accused get their space to speak and make themselves understood, and the filmmakers never explicitly says which side is justified. They leave it to you to observe, as they have, and understand the situation, then come to your own conclusions. Not that Berlinger and Sinofsky don't have their positions, but the point is that they don't lead you by the hand to the "correct" beliefs -- rather, they let the situation speak for itself. A compelling tapestry of anger and confusion, full of messy contradictions and infuriating lapses in judgment (Damian Echols vacillates between modest intelligence and ill-considered defiance; there's a sense that he helps to sabotage his own trial); in other words, true-life drama at its finest and most affecting.

Grade: A-


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