In 1993, three eight-year-old boys were found dead in a creek in West Memphis, Arkansas. A month later, three teenageers—Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols and Jessie Misskelley—were arrested, accused and convicted of raping and killing the boys.
The head of HBO documentaries, Sheila Nevins, sent a press clipping of the incident to documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger, a Katonah resident, beginning a journey that lasted 18 years, included him co-directing three films on the case and ending with the August 2011 release from prison of the accused, who are now men in their thirties.
The third film in the triology, "Paradise Lost: Purgatory," was co-directed by Bruce Sinofsky and will be shown on Nov. 3 at the Jacob Burns Film Center as part of its 'Global Watch' film series which showcases 21 films running through Nov. 22.
"This is a brand new film and an opportunity for local audiences—we all should be concerned about the imperfections of our justice system so things like this can’t happen," said Berlinger. "It’s also rare to have a story like this covered for so long. I have been dedicated to this for the entire 17 years I've lived in Katonah."
Berlinger said he initially went to Arkansas thinking he was making a film about guilty kids but soon realized that the local press had sensationalized the story and "fanned the flames of prejudice," wrongfully convicting teens who listened to heavy metal music and were interested in Wicca, a pagan religious movement.
"We got there seven months before the trial started and became convinced that—in a heavily religious community—these kids who wore black were picked up [because they were different.]
The first film was released on HBO in 1996 and was called “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills." Its release spawned an explosion of worldwide interest and new funding for continuing the story. Johnny Depp, Metallica, Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder and Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks were among the celebrities who rallied to support the 2000 film follow-up, "Paradise Lost: Revelations," which documented the interest in the case and the appeals process.
Berlinger said he stuck with the story because he was frustrated and disappointed the news never made it from entertainment to front-page news.
"I had two children while making these films," said Berlinger. "With every milestone I encountered in my life, I was haunted by the fact that these guys were still rotting in prison. I felt a moral obligation."
After they had finished editing the third film and were preparing for its premiere, Berlinger recieved word that the three men would be released from prison—he flew to Arkansas to get footage of their release and added it to the final cut.
The film covers the whole case, giving viewers who have not seen the first two a complete picture. Berlinger said at the New York premiere, the three men received a ten-minute "loving, standing ovation."
"It was an incredibly memorable evening," he said of that night—a sort of Hollywood-happy ending that documentary filmmakers don't always encounter.
Berlinger—a two-time Emmy and Peabody award winner—describes many of his films has having a "biting social edge," such as the 2009 film "Crude," which documented oil pollution in the Amazon rain forest. He's also done commercials, and series for VH1, Court TV and the new Oprah Winfrey Network. He most recently wrapped about on the 25th anniversary of Paul Simon's "Graceland" album, shot with the artist in South Africa last summer.
The native of Chappaqua and Horace Greeley alum said he loves living in Northern Westhester and being able to retreat to its beautiful environment.
"After working with people in difficult situations, to come back home to this place—living here recharges my batteries. It's a place of serenity," he said.
The film begins at 7 p.m. on Nov. 3 and includes a Q&A with director Joe Berlinger, hosted by former New York Times film critic, Janet Maslin. For more information, click here.