Posted by Alia Haddad on November 29, 2012 at 11:22 am
I commented earlier this week on the recent prevalence of documentaries chronicling boys who were wrongfully convicted of serious crimes. West of
Memphis, the documentary directed by relative new-comer Amy Berg and produced by Hollywood mainstays Peter Jackson (yes, that Peter Jackson) and Damien Echols, focusing on the three teenagers in Arkansas wrongfully-convicted and then released but not exonerated of the murders of three eight-year-old boys in 1993, is the latest in this string of similarly themed documentaries.
How did it hold up? Well, West of Memphis which premiered at Sundance last year, has a few things working in its favor. First, the documentary’s subject is one that I, as I’m sure is the same for many people, find endlessly interesting. With these cases, it seems clear that the convictions had just as much to do with a faulty judicial system as with the culture and society during the time it takes place. Rather, these horrifying cases often don’t even need a trial, having been convicted by the public much earlier. And wondering why the public so earnestly believed in these boys’ guilt despite not knowing all the evidence fascinates me.
West of Memphis also has the advantage of documenting a case largely pursued by and whose resolution has a lot to do with Hollywood. Taken by the seemingly faulty conviction, Hollywood presences like Sean Penn, Johnny Depp, and Eddie Vedder constantly brought the complex case to the public’s eye. So much so that the West Memphis Three’s eventual release was largely credited to the work of Hollywood.
Finally, the last characteristic working in West of Memphis‘s favor is the fact that the case is ongoing. That is, while the three men have been released from prison due to the lack of real evidence against them, they have not been exonerated of the crimes. So they are still considered guilty and are forced to live with that sentence. Because the case is still continuing, the documentary is considered unfinished, shown only with the caveat that it will continue to change, have content added, and be edited until each of the three men are finally exonerated.
With these things working in the film’s favor, West of Memphis proved to be a captivating and moving documentary, one that, running at about two and a half hours, held my interest throughout. It is only when comparing the film to The Central Park Five, that it became clear that West of Memphis did have its faults. For example, the methods of story-telling were not as smooth, the culture during that point in time was not as fleshed out, and some reoccurring images could be considered trite. Does this mean that West of Memphis was bad? No, far from it, but since the movie is still being cultivated, I think there are some issues that they can fix. Overall, though, West of Memphis was strong documentary that elicited powerful emotion in its viewers.