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Q&A: Amy Berg on ‘West of Memphis’ and Providing an Ending to 18 Years of Hell

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Director Amy Berg at the premiere of West of Memphis. Photo by Stephen Speckman.

Claiborne Smith

If you think the American justice system is chugging along just fine, West of Memphis will sober you up from that crazy trip in about two minutes flat. Amy Berg’s encyclopedic account of the bungled case of the West Memphis Three is actually two and a half hours long, but because the case first went to trial in 1994 in West Memphis, Arkansas, and its legal twists haven’t slowed during the subsequent 18 years, Berg has quite a bit of ground to cover.

In 1993, three poor West Memphis teenagers were accused of brutally fracturing the skulls of three boys and sexually mutilating them to satisfy the demands of a satanic cult led by one of the three teens, Damien Echols. Poor and discounted as weird misfits, the teens didn’t have a fighting chance against a prosecutor who, the film alleges, knew the supposed murder weapon couldn’t possibly have been the knife that murdered the boys.

Now released from prison, but made to plead guilty, the West Memphis Three are adjusting to life outside prison. Squarely in the tradition of investigative, gut-punching documentary, West of Memphis is humane, engrossing, and a “call to action” against future legal injustices, as Amy Berg said after the film’s world premiere at the MARC. Producers Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Lorri Davis (the wife of Damien Echols, who was also at the premiere), and three defense lawyers joined Berg onstage to answer the audience’s questions.

How did you get involved in this story?

Berg: I got a phone call from Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh—they had been funding the investigation for four years and it was 2008 when they turned all of this amazing evidence over to the state and were denied, and decided that documentary was the only way to continue the investigation.

Peter Jackson: Fran and I saw the original Paradise Lost [the documentary about the case made by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky] in 2004 or 2005 and it was a film that made us very angry, very sad, made us feel that there wasn’t justice being served to a lot of people involved in this case, so we called Lorri and asked her if there was anything we could do.

Lorri Davis: First of all, I just want to thank everyone for being here tonight. It’s a little emotional. I want to thank all of these people up here who helped me.

Damien Echols: I’d like to pretty much repeat what Lorri said. We’ve watched this film several times by ourselves, but this is the first time we’ve watched it with an audience and it’s really overwhelming. So I just want to say thanks to everyone here tonight and thanks to everyone who supported us through almost 20 years of hell.

For the lawyers, what kept you from giving up when it felt like the attempt to prove them innocent would never happen?

Dennis Reardon: We came into the case only for the last 7 years, not nearly as long as Lorri and Damien. It was often very, very difficult—you’re dealing with people who are in pain and suffering through all of this, and I suppose the principal engine was that as difficult as it was, we knew there was this extraordinary man and his extraordinary wife who were facing far more than we were. It was an honor to work on their behalf.

How can we prevent future injustices like this from happening?

Jackson: Obviously you hope the film is going to have lessons for the justice system. It shows how fragile it is, it shows that it doesn’t need much to derail it. Is it that the system is wrong, or is it that at times we get the wrong people within the system who are supposed to be doing a good job?

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Sundance Institute Piloting Direct Individual Support for Mediamakers Through the Sundance Institute | Humanities Sustainability Fellowship

Long before the COVID-19 pandemic upended life in general, and halted production and distribution for many creatives, the nonfiction field was plagued by issues of sustainability. For several years, sustainability has been an urgent and vigorous topic of study, debate, and organizing, as more and more filmmakers find it difficult, if not impossible, to make a living solely on the basis of their creative work. 

In Memoriam: Diane Weyermann (1955–2021)

A singular force within the documentary film world with a global reach, Diane Weyermann passed away at age 66 after battling cancer. Over the course of her 30-year career as a funder and an executive, her work elevated the documentary form and expanded its cultural impact.

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