Paradise Lost 2: Revelations

****

Reviewed by: Nick Jones

In 1994, three men were convicted of horrific child murders in their hometown of West Memphis. Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky filmed the trial and surrounding events and made the Emmy-winning documentary Paradise Lost which, brilliant as it was for its brave objectivity, was like a small branch thrown into the cogs of American "justice". As this sequel proves, however, it succeeded in raising enough awareness of the travesty to keep a glimmer of hope alive for the West Memphis Three.

The first film ended with the jury's unanimous verdict that Damien Echols, Jesse Misskelly and Jason Baldwin killed the three eight-year-old children Chris Byers, Michael Moore and Steven Branch. Three years later, Berlinger and Sinofsky returned to West Memphis and made a follow-up, the aptly subtitled Revelations.

The film succeeds in proving their wrongful imprisonment - as crazy as it sounds there really is NO real evidence - and raises further suspicion towards Mark Byers, the stepfather of one of the murdered boys and a character whose ubiquity in the film is eerily telling, particularly in the absence of all the other victim's parents. Revelations also documents Echol's desperate appeals for a retrial, all of which have been rejected.

This sequel suffers from inherent narrative issues, making it a little repetitive. For the documentary to make sense to the uninitiated, it has to draw heavily on the first film, so we see many flashbacks of previous in-court action and interviews with the lawyers, defendants, police and family members. Also, due to the notoriety of HBO's original documentary, this time round the cameras were banned from the courtrooms.

Conversely, thanks to that notoriety, what Berlinger and Sinofsky now have is a wealth of new support, most obviously in the form of the Free The West Memphis support group, a collective of well-meaning Americans who saw the original film, were united with feelings of compassion towards the three young men and have since battled relentlessly for justice through campaigns, the selling of tee-shirts and the keystone to it all, their impressively in-depth website www.wm3.org, which features every known fact about the case.

It is reassuring to meet these people; they represent common sense; they represent us, the onlookers, who watched the trial from a distance and saw the wood from the trees. There was very little common sense in Paradise Lost, where the power was solely in the hands of prejudiced jurors and corrupt cops, and it was as frustrating as it was disturbing to watch.

One of the noticeable things right from the start of Revelations is the difference in Echols. Since his trial, he has transformed from a chubby longhaired adolescent to a slimmer, bespectacled young man. His studious appearance belies his prison clothes and surroundings. His softly spoken voice hints at the abuse he has suffered whilst behind bars - he sued the prison for not preventing him from being raped by inmates. He has aged quickly, but thankfully remains resolute and hopeful of his eventual retrial.

In the first film, you sympathise with the parents of the murdered children and naturally understand why they would want the perpetrators locked up. But how long does it take to stand back and look at the facts, or, more accurately, lack of them and realise that there is every chance they have arrested the wrong people? Their unwillingness to appear in the second film suggests that they are trying to move on with their lives.

But Mark Byers is everywhere. Something is eating him up. So many of his deluded comments sound like they contain a confession under the surface and, in the scene when he acts out the "burial' of Echols et al, his booming, insane rants make you wonder whether this is the first time he's laid three souls to rest in Robin Hood Hills?

At the start of the film, Margaret Byers says she would like to eat the skin from Echol's face. Later we learn that, since the trials, the Byers have stolen property from their neighbours, written thousands of dollars worth of bad cheques and are both drug addicts. As if this wasn't suspicious enough, Margaret then dies in "indeterminate circumstances".

How does a redneck like Mark Byers remain untouchable, when Echols is imprisoned for liking Metallica? Rather than getting straight answers, Revelations digs up more questions.

Once again, the filmmakers remain silent observers, letting the camera and the "characters" do the talking. Bleak, depressing, yet essential, the Paradise Lost documentaries are more disturbing than any horror film, because they deal with realities.

At the time of the case, the media was largely responsible for an unfair trial, but without films like these and the Internet, the West Memphis Three wouldn't stand a chance.

For more information about the West Memphis Three, visit www.wm3.org

Reviewed on: 21 Oct 2007
Share this with others on...
Paradise Lost 2: Revelations packshot
Sequel documentary tracking the appeals of the West Memphis Three.
Amazon link

Festivals:


Search database: