Films Clash Over Access in Crime Case
A newly announced documentary about the West Memphis Three murder case in Arkansas carries the imprimatur of Peter Jackson, the Academy Award-winning director of the “Lord of the Rings” movies, and the goal of exonerating three men who were released from prison in August.
But with its considerable pedigree and ambitions, the film has collided with a long-running documentary series produced by HBO that has brought worldwide attention to the case.
On Sunday Mr. Jackson’s production company, Wingnut Films, announced the completion of “West of Memphis,” a nonfiction feature directed by Amy Berg, whose 2006 documentary, “Deliver Us From Evil,” about a Roman Catholic priest who confessed to numerous acts of child molestation and rape, was nominated for an Oscar.
The new film looks at Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr., who were teenagers in 1994 when they were tried, convicted and imprisoned for killing three 8-year-old boys in West Memphis, Ark. Over the years those convictions have been called into question, and the men were freed on Aug. 19 in an arrangement that required them to plead guilty, even as they continue to maintain their innocence.
Mr. Jackson and his wife and collaborator, Fran Walsh, who live in New Zealand, have followed the case since 2005. An investigation that they helped finance yielded new findings that, if not for the plea deal, might have led to a new evidentiary hearing or even a new trial for Mr. Baldwin, Mr. Misskelley and Mr. Echols, who was facing a death sentence and had exhausted his appeals. (Mr. Echols and his wife, Lorri Davis, are also producers of “West of Memphis.”)
But they are hardly the only filmmakers covering the story. A 1996 documentary, “Paradise Lost: The Murders at Robin Hood Hills,” and a 2000 sequel, “Paradise Lost 2: Revelations,” directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, helped raise awareness about the West Memphis Three defendants and cast doubts about witnesses and evidence at their trials.
Mr. Berlinger and Mr. Sinofsky’s latest entry, “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory,” is planned for a January broadcast on HBO and was among 15 films named last month to the shortlist of contenders for the Academy Award for best documentary feature. Versions of “Paradise Lost 3” were also screened at the Toronto and New York film festivals this year.
Ms. Berg, who was recruited by Mr. Jackson in 2009, acknowledged in an interview that though she had not seen the “Paradise Lost” films, they “got the ball rolling,” while leaving “so many avenues that needed to be investigated.”
Ms. Berg said she believed that multiple projects on the case — a scripted feature film is also in the works — could peacefully coexist. “Personally I believe that the pursuit of justice has nothing to do with competition,” she said.
But behind the scenes she and the “Paradise Lost” filmmakers have butted heads over access to key figures in the case.
Pam Hobbs, the mother of Stevie Branch, one of the murder victims, said in an interview that she was contacted last year by Mr. Berlinger, who sought to film new material with her for “Paradise Lost 3.” However, Ms. Hobbs had signed a life-rights deal with Elizabeth Fowler, a producer of the scripted feature, and was unsure if she could participate in the documentary.
Ms. Fowler said that while an arrangement was being worked out that would allow Ms. Hobbs to be interviewed for “Paradise Lost 3,” Ms. Berg made her own deal with Ms. Hobbs that precluded her from speaking to Mr. Berlinger for his film.
“The next thing I knew,” Ms. Fowler said, “Joe got quote-unquote shut down, and there was no point in continuing those conversations.” (Mr. Berlinger, Mr. Sinofsky and HBO declined to comment on this matter.)
A lawyer representing “West of Memphis” also wrote an e-mail to the “Paradise Lost” team, denying a request to release Ms. Hobbs from its contract, adding: “Hopefully, you wouldn’t want to encourage or induce such third parties to breach their agreements.” A spokeswoman for “West of Memphis” said that Ms. Berg became aware of this correspondence in January and that HBO respected this exclusivity. The spokeswoman said in an e-mail that Ms. Hobbs “chose to work with us exclusively and felt committed to our investigation and our investigative film.”
Ms. Berg said her production paid Ms. Hobbs about $500 a week as “a consulting fee” and to protect confidential information in her investigation. She said Mr. Berlinger and Mr. Sinofsky made similar arrangements with other subjects, including Terry Hobbs, Ms. Hobbs’s ex-husband, and John Mark Byers, the adoptive father of another murder victim, Christopher Byers. Those men gave on-camera interviews for “Paradise Lost 3” but not for “West of Memphis.” The credits for “Paradise Lost 3” say that “some individuals appearing in this film received an honorarium for their participation.”
No theatrical distributor or broadcaster has been announced for “West of Memphis,” but the film is a strong candidate next year for major film festivals, like Sundance, which has not yet unveiled its complete documentary lineup.
Wherever the film is ultimately shown, Ms. Berg said it would fulfill its mission if it helped shine a light on what many consider to be an injustice.
“I don’t know if there are enough films that could be made about this, really, because it speaks to everything that’s wrong with our society and our country and our legal system,” she said. “There are so many themes within this story that need examination.”
Originally posted here.