Docu filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky have refused to claim credit for helping the men known as the West Memphis Three secure their release in August after 18 years in prison. But Damien Echols, who was on death row after being convincted on shaky evidence for the murder of three Arkansas boys in 1993, on Monday was quick to credit the pair with keeping their cause front and center in the media through their three “Paradise Lost” docus, the first of which bowed on HBO in 1996.
The filmmakers, Echols and his fellow defendants, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, spoke out at a news conference on Monday at HBO’s Gotham HQ, before the updated third installment of the series, “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory,” debuted at the New York Film Fest.
“If Joe and Bruce hadn’t been there in the beginning to get the trial on film our case would have sank into obscurity and I wouldn’t be anything but a memory right now,” Echols said during the emotionally charged Q&A moderated by HBO docu chief Sheila Nevins, who is an exec producer of “Paradise Lost.”
The first pic, “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills,” raised questions about the murder case made against the three men, who were then in their teens. In 2000, “Paradise Lost 2: Revelations” chronicled the various appeals made in the case and implicated another person in the boys’ murders.
After years of legal maneuvering, the trio’s release was contingent on them entering a so-called Alford guilty plea, allowing the them to plead guilty for legal purposes but still maintain their innocence.
The news of their subjects’ freedom came too close to “Paradise Lost 3’s” Toronto Film Fest premiere last month for Berlinger and Sinofsky to cut a new ending. In the month between the two fests, the helmers constructed a new epilogue, adding 12 minutes to the film.
The helmers called the release of the trio a “collective effort.”Despite their long association with the West Memphis Three case, Berlinger warned of documentarians crossing the line between telling a story and championing a cause.
“I think if you focus too much on the advocacy and not on the filmmaking you can get into a lot of trouble as documentary director,” Berlinger said. “I was recently on a panel about how films can change the world. Loading that baggage onto the documentary genre scares me as much as it excites me because you have to be a good storyteller as well as an advocate in order for people to see your work. There are an awful lot of poorly made well-intentioned films. In many ways this is a story about the evils of capital punishment seen through a very personal lens.”
Nevins said she would like to do a fourth installment of “Paradise Lost.” “If we possibly can, we need to get (these men) the kind of freedom they deserve because they are innocent,” Nevins said, asking the men directly: “Would that be ok?”
“I don’t see why not,” Echols said.