With platforms like Netflix taking the world by storm, we’re getting exposure to more and more documentary films. This kind of genre is so popular because it often sheds light on controversial issues and opens discussion on topics that may not have had much attention from the media or the public. But what makes a ‘quality’ documentary movie?
From The Thin Blue Line (1988) and Touching The Void (2003) to Deliver Us From Evil (2006) and Blackfish (2013), there’s been a variety of fantastic documentaries over the decades which have addressed an array of different cases, discourses and theories. Documentary films have the ability to stay with us, to plague the corner of our conscience and to beg us to find out more. They can sometimes function as a political tool or a form of protest.
A few years ago, I watched a documentary film which I really have been unable to get out of my head since. That documentary was Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (1996). This is the first in a trilogy portraying a tragic story otherwise known as ‘The West Memphis Three’ case, summarised below:
In the 1994, three teenage males were tried and found guilty of murdering three young boys in what was believed to be a Satanic ritual killing. With a shocking lack of DNA evidence (to be more precise – zero DNA evidence) linking the teenagers to the crime scene, two received life imprisonment and more, with one of them facing death row. In later years when media attention raised unavoidable questions related to the justice system, several appeals were carried out to address the conflicting forensic evidence. Eighteen years later, the teenagers are now grown men and must enter a rare plea bargain with prosecutors to assert their innocence yet acknowledge their status as criminals. Basically – case closed and swept under the rug.
So how did the documentary makers (Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky) tackle the situation when they started filming in 1995? Something worth noting is that this particular film is very hard to watch. The introduction shows graphic imagery from the crime scene, before moving on to the arrests of the three teenagers: Jessie Misskelley, Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin – the ‘West Memphis Three’. Most importantly, Berlinger and Sinofsky gain unprecedented access to all sides of the defence and the prosecution team. We get to watch the evidence unfold through various accounts in the courtroom and experience the testimonies of individuals as each of them take the stand. We see intimate interviews with the families of the victims and the accused as subtle observations are revealed.
The access that the filmmakers have is always an element that makes a documentary that extra bit special. I loved Louis Theroux’s very recent My Scientology Movie, but restricted access to specific Scientologists themselves did leave the documentary somewhat lacking. These kind of restrictions are not something the filmmakers of the Paradise Lost trilogy came up against, which really allows us to see all sides of the case.
Does that mean the Paradise Lost documentaries are unbiased? In this case – no. As the first instalment, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, does a fantastic job of educating us on the insides and outsides of the case. However, the intentions and feelings of the documentary makers seem clear. By the end of this film, I was almost 100% certain that I knew who’s guilty. The filmmakers focussed on a particular individual in the close confines of the case in such a way that viewers will undoubtedly form an opinion. The new Netflix original, Amanda Knox, is a perfect example of a well documented case on film without leaning one way or another in favour of the accused. My one criticism of the first Paradise Lost film would be that a strong sense of opinion or assumption from the filmmakers seems palpable.
Four years later, Sinofsky and Berlinger return with the second documentary film; Paradise Lost: Revelations (2000), with Paradise Lost: Purgatory (2011) following eleven years after that. All three films are extremely powerful, and certainly make a huge impact. These three documentaries left me shocked and questioning the justice system, paving the way for my ever growing interest in the paradox that is an unsolved crime case.
There is also a film on the subject by Peter Jackson called West Of Memphis (2012) available on Netflix. This documentary is, in essence, a combination of the three prior films with some very insightful footage and interviews from present day. Watching this movie would be a constructive way to get the full view of the case with the advantage of hindsight. However, I personally would recommend watching the three Paradise Lost documentaries which show a progression and changing of opinions throughout the years, as well as providing incredibly detailed accounts on each occasion. Perhaps make an attempt to keep your judgements at bay until you have watched all three.
If you have seen these documentaries, please do share your thoughts, whatever they may be. If you’re not familiar with this case, I cannot recommend the documentaries strongly enough. You can watch the first one here.