Director Joe Berlinger, Jesse Misskelley Jr., Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and director Bruce Sinofsky on the NYFF red carpet. Photo by Godlis.
Home to world premieres, red carpet arrivals and breakout films from burgeoning talent, the New York Film Festival witnessed another extraordinary "first" in its 49-year history on Monday night: the West Memphis Three, Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols and Jesse Misskelley Jr., made their first public appearance since being released from prison in August.
The three men came to the festival to participate in a Q&A following the Alice Tully Hall screening of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's documentary Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, which featured the world premiere of a new ending documenting the release. Memorable moments included their walking the red carpet surrounded by the press and appearing for a long and emotional standing ovation from the crowd during the film's credits.
The story of the making of Paradise Lost began in 1993 when Sheila Nevins, then head of HBO Documentaries, came across a New York Times article about the West Memphis murders and decided to send Berlinger and Sinofsky to document the case. They all believed in the innocence of Baldwin, Echols and Misskelley Jr. and felt they had to keep on going until they were set free.
NYFF Program Director Richard Peña pointed out that Film Society of Lincoln Center has a history with these films. The first chapter, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, was screened at New Directors/New Films in 1993. The directors said that bringing the third chapter to New York Film Festival was an honor and a sort of “homecoming” for them.
The topics focused on in the Q&A included the role of local media in West Memphis Three’s conviction, Jason and Damien’s thoughts on the Alford plea and life after prison. Public opinion about the West Memphis Three has changed drastically over the years, which Berlinger and Sinofsky said they felt acutely across the filming of the three chapters. They credited local grassroots organizations like Arkansas Take Action and WM3.org, as well as the media's increasingly thorough investigation of the case. The growth in support was especially evident at the latest hearing, "which would not have happened 10 years ago," said Berlinger.
Echols said he wants to forget about the past and the plea; as for a possible pardon, he stated that “a pardon won’t give me back the past 20 years of my life.” He wants to continue writing—he is already a published author—and Jason is going back to school for law. "It happened for a reason and sometimes you can choose the reason," he said. With his education and experience, Jason wants to help people, especially teenagers who are in the same situation he was.
It should also be noted that many of the people who supported the West Memphis Three and the filmmakers over the years were present in the audience—from Lori Davis Echols and lawyers to WM3.org representatives, from Juno Reynolds (who reported juror misconduct) to general supporters. Thursday at 6:30pm, directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky will sit down with Film Society's Eugene Hernandez for an HBO Directors Dialogue.