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:: West of Memphis

Justice has been poetically defined as truth in action. If that is the case, Amy Berg’s West of Memphis examines the haunting prevalence of its converse - lies through inaction - in the case of the West Memphis Three.

In 1993, three eight-year-old boys were found murdered in a creek in West Memphis, Arkansas. Soon after, three teenagers were arrested for the crime. After a well-publicised court case, the West Memphis Three (as they were dubbed) were sentenced to life in prison with the so-called “ring-leader”, Damien Echols, facing the death penalty. Initially positing the audience as part of the general public following the 1994 trial, there seems no plausibility in these three teenagers’ innocence. However as the documentary progresses, Berg steadily chips away at the previous misconceptions through shocking revelations and discrepancies with the original arrest and trial that resulted in these boys being wrongfully imprisoned for 18 years.

Three outsider, “white trash” teenagers (one of which is borderline mentally disabled) are condemned as devil-worshipping psychopaths through a combination of falsified testimony, lazy police work, graphic and emotive displays by the prosecution of the speculated murder–rape scenario, and an unashamed use of Satanic rhetoric for the Arkansas jury. It’s a story of kids caught up in a system where they are underrepresented and utterly powerless. Used and abused by people with alleged political agendas, they never stood a chance.

Structurally the film works very well in disseminating the plethora of information, but even at 147 minutes there were parts of the story that had to be left out. I would have liked more insight into the Three’s headspace at the time of the trial, either through archival interview footage or by contemporary interviews of the Three. However, the film mainly focuses around the dark, poetic presence of Echols who is absolutely captivating. A humble and spiritual being, Echols says he would not take back even one day spent on death row as it helped shape who he is today.

Mercifully after 18 years the Three are released, however it is bittersweet. Advised to invoke the Alford plea, the Three plead guilty while maintaining their innocence on the grounds that it is in their best interests. It is a poisoned justice where political and financial safeguard for the system overshadow truth and retribution. Which leads to the most harrowing part of this systematic abomination: in consequence of the Three taking the Alford plea, the case is officially closed. As a result the real killer is still at large: never to be pursued, never to be convicted.

West of Memphis demonstrates the power of the documentary genre. It is a film that will have you outraged, perplexed, fascinated and even reassured - if only slightly. Through this arduous journey the film finds truth, but it is a bruised and battered one, a reality perhaps too real for comfort.