Amy Berg unsettles with an intelligent documentary investigating the much-contested case of the teenage 'West Memphis Three'
On May 5 1993, Michael Moore, Stevie Branch and Christopher Byers – three eight-year-old boys from West Memphis, Arkansas – were murdered. Their bodies were found the next day. West of Memphis, a 147 minute documentary directed by reporter Amy Berg, adds to the wealth of debate surrounding one of the most contentious crimes in American history. Since the conviction in 1994 of the ‘West Memphis Three’ - Damien Echols, Jesse Misskelley Jr. and Jason Baldwin - there have been 18 years of witness statements and recantations, confessions and retractions, accusations and exonerations. Berg’s compelling documentary invites the audience into a labyrinthine world where truth remains a contested commodity.
The documentary, while intelligent and well-made, is not impartial. Although it interviews major players on both sides of the debate, West of Memphis argues persuasively in favour of the innocence of the convicted teenagers. As her avenue of approach Berg alights on the relationship between campaigner Lorri Davis and the incarcerated Damien Echols. Regardless of guilt or innocence, their relationship is a moving story of faith and love. Lorri’s ardent belief that Echols and his fellow convicts were scapegoats attracted the involvement of celebrities such as Peter Jackson, Johnny Depp and Eddie Vedder, leading to a snowballing campaign to raise awareness that came to a head last year.
The results of Berg’s investigation, which suggest a concerted cover-up by leading Arkansas officials and a killer still at large, can be unpleasant. One of the case’s many contentious issues was whether the children were mutilated in a satanic ritual or preyed upon by animals; to illustrate the feeding patterns of the snapper turtles that lurked in the creek where the bodies were found, a hog carcass is lowered into a tank full of the reptiles. It is an effective touch, but an ironic one. The jury in 1994 was shown a grapefruit being sliced by a knife to suggest how the children’s wounds may have been inflicted. In West of Memphis, to the same ends, a captive audience is shown turtles tearing flesh off a dead pig.
The macabre display has its purpose; forensic experts who credit animal predation for the wounds are in the majority. But by calling on us to question everything we have been
told by the state, the judiciary and the police, West of Memphis may cause its audience to doubt the existence of any form of historical truth when it resides in the hands of another. At callahan.8k.com, perhaps for this reason, vast quantities of the official reports and trial transcripts have been made available, allowing interested parties to choose what to trust and what to reject, in a sort of ‘build-your-own’ appraisal of the case. There is at least one fact, at the tale’s dark and cankered heart, that no one can find grounds to contest. On May 5 1993, Michael Moore, Stevie Branch and Christopher Byers – three eight year old boys from West Memphis, Arkansas – were murdered. Their bodies were found the next day.