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DocGeeks » Interviews » Joe Berlinger, director of the Paradise Lost documentaries: “It really was a witch hunt”

Joe Berlinger, director of the Paradise Lost documentaries: “It really was a witch hunt”

Earlier this week DocGeeks’ Jacob Harbord reviewed the Paradise Lost documentary series, which portray the faith of the West Memphis 3; innocent young men who were wrongly convicted of a heinous crime. Director Joe Berlinger, partially responsible for the men’s recent release, agreed to an interview and spoke to Harbord about a simple little phenomenon called the truth and what role he would like to see the films play in our society today. 

What did you think was going to happen throughout the trials when you first started making the trilogy?

To answer that question I have to let you know that we arrived long before the trials started. One of the reasons the original film was so compelling is that we arrived only days after the – the three teens were arrested in June 1993. We embedded ourselves in that community for eight months before the first trial began, so we were able to build relationships and get unprecedented access to the trial. We got access to all families of the victims, all families of the accused; we got the judge and the prosecutor. Everybody agreed to let us make this film because we arrived eight months prior and really dug into this case.

That’s important background because when we started we thought we were making a film about guilty teenagers because all of the press reports were so negative and one-sided. In fact, I had tried to make a film about the Jamie Bulger case in your country but couldn’t get access. Then this case happened and we wanted to understand how kids could be so terrible that they would kill other children.

When we first arrived, we thought that these guys were guilty and we primarily spent time with parents of the victims. But, as we looked into the evidence, met the families of the accused and eventually negotiated access to interview the West Memphis 3 who were being held in jail without bail before the trials began, it just didn’t feel like they were guilty. We were naive enough to go into the trial thinking this will surely work itself out because the evidence is so weak. Then we experienced the jaw-dropping display of ignorance and prejudice at the trial, it really was a witch hunt.

Did you come to see yourselves as investigative journalists or as advocates?

I think that, to be a good advocate, you have to be a good investigative journalist and you have to uncover the truth. Paradise Lost is a very balanced film in that it tries to show both sides to the story, but you come away feeling that a grave miscarriage of justice was done. I think that some advocacy films are so strong on their advocacy point of view that it allows people to dismiss the film as one-sided. I think that, to be the best advocate for your subject, you have to tell a balanced, truthful story.

For example, some people wondered why we put Damien at the end of the film saying he’s going to be remembered as the West Memphis bogeyman if we were being advocates. But, if you’re an advocate, you don’t want to whitewash things and Damien’s own enjoyment of the spotlight explains how people could have fallen for the prosecution’s bullshit story. I think the second film was much more born out of an advocacy impulse and I think it’s a much weaker film because of it.

I thought it was actually the second film which was the most interesting of the three. I expected you to solely point the finger at Mark Byers and was pleasantly surprised that you were striving to offer a total objectivity picture to the audience and lett him speak for himself. 

I think that is and was a common misconception and I don’t think it was our intention to point the finger at Mark Byers. We were covering the case and there was a lot of suspicion directed at him by the case itself. At the time, I believed it was a very truthful film and it is truthful in the sense that it’s following the story of the first re-investigation. It’s not like we were creating the news – we were following the then-unfolding re-investigation of the case by the activists. It was thought that those wounds were human bite marks. The best forensic science now tells us that those wounds were post-mortem animal predation, but the film is still truthful because it’s covering the 1997-98 investigation, the conclusions of which seem flawed in 2012. To me it raises the interesting question of what is the truth?

Exactly, it’s the most interesting film because it convinces you that Mark Byers was the most plausible suspect and challenges our belief in what we see in movies.

Right, I would feel bad about that if we hadn’t done what we did, which was to give Mark every opportunity to address his accusers, who were not the filmmakers, but many of the WM3 activists. This film gave him an opportunity to present his point of view and he passed the lie detector test that he took. The film is a time capsule of the state of the investigation at the time and I think that’s the fundamental point.

How do you compare your films to West of Memphis?

I think West of Memphis is an excellent film and deserves to be seen. It’s a great tool for exoneration and I think there’s room for both the Paradise Lost trilogy and West of Memphis because they’re very different kinds of films. The Paradise Lost trilogy was immersive, cinema-verite documentary made primarily while the action was unfolding before the cameras, whereas West of Memphis is primarily a retrospective look with the benefit of hindsight.

Both are good ways to make film but the key difference is that the Paradise Lost series is made by independent journalists who are not dependent upon their subjects for editorial control, nor are we “creating” the news we are covering. West of Memphis is the subjects telling their own story, they’re not independent of the events and they’re telling the story of how they made the news. But there’s room for both perspectives, they’re very different kinds of documentary experiences – one is more objective journalism and the other is a wonderful example of impassioned documentary advocacy.

The Paradise Lost films spearheaded the movement to release the West Memphis 3 and now that has been achieved, what role do you see the films having in our society?

I think the Paradise Lost trilogy stands as a searing example of how the justice system can be deeply flawed. To me, the lesson of the series is the utter immorality of the death penalty. Clearly, if the Paradise Lost films hadn’t been made, Damien Echols would be dead. He had an opportunity after running out of appeals in 2001 to mount a DNA appeal but these are very costly and, without the films, he’d have been an unknown, indigent resident of Arkansas’ death row. He most likely would have been executed and the other two guys forgotten for life without any possibility for parole.

The usual moral perspective on the death penalty is whether it’s right for the state to take somebody’s life. That’s an unanswerable question for many people, because if you’re a victim of a horrendous crime I don’t want to say you’re immoral for thinking the state should sentence someone to death. But the American justice system is run by human beings and we can see how some human beings in the system would rather protect their jobs than embrace the truth. The fundamental ease with which the system can be abused means you can never have a death penalty. You don’t even have to get to that larger moral question of whether or not the state has the right to kill somebody. You can’t have a death penalty in a system that allows innocent people to slip through the cracks.

The other message of the film is the power of regular people to effect social change. One of the disappointing things about West of Memphis is that it primarily focuses on celebrity involvement in the case. . Of course, people like Metallica and Eddie Vedder and Johnny Depp and Natalie Maines and Henry Rollins did wonderful things for the case, but to me the true heroes are the regular people. Tens of thousands of regular people from all over the world who didn’t just turn off the TV, they found each other on the internet in the early days of this case and created a movement. The activities of the people who started the first website – to me, they are among the true unsung heroes of this case. Of course Peter Jackson and Lorri Davis deserve tremendous credit for their incredible activism…I am just saying they stood on the shoulders of others.

Finally, making the Paradise Lost trilogy, I believe I’ve seen the absolute best and absolute worst in human behaviour. The worst being the people who would rather knowingly protect their jobs than allow the truth to come out; the best being the tens of thousands of people who stepped out of their regular lives, banded together and demanded justice, both regular people and well- known folks. It shows you the power of what people can do when they come together to bring about social change.

What separates the people who defend themselves and those you fought for the truth, what do you think distinguishes them from each other?

Selfishness. I don’t actually think the prosecution, the police and the judge were rounding up people they initially thought were innocent at first. There was a lot of bad police work, there was a lot of prejudice, and they all got wound up in this satanic hysteria. If they thought they were doing something crooked initially – and most people think they were out to railroad these guys from the start – they wouldn’t have allowed the filmmaking to go on. Afterall, we had to convince the judge and the prosecutors to allow us to bring cameras in the courtroom. I don’t believe that they would have allowed that if they truly believed these guys were innocent. However, over time, I believe that many of the people responsible for these guys being in prison came to think they might be innocent and then put their self-interest ahead of justice. They put their self-interest ahead of the truth, and that to me is the key difference between them and the regular people who were willing to sacrifice money and time in service of the truth.

I don’t think it’s heroic to make documentary films when you’re a documentary filmmaker. I think we did a great job, we uncovered the truth when all the other media was telling the opposite story, and we were willing to do whatever it takes to make that happen. But I don’t think that’s heroic. What’s heroic is if you’re a banker, or a movie star, or a hamburger flipper at McDonalds and you’re so moved by injustice that you stand up to be counted and to fight for the truth.


Written by

Jacob recently completed the MA in Visual Anthropology at the University of Manchester and currently works as a qualitative researcher by day and filmmaker/film journalist by night. His favourite documentaries are The Last Train Home, Hoop Dreams, and Encounters At The End Of The World. He’s also a big fan of VICE and loves long sessions watching short documentaries.

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