West of Memphis director Amy Berg probes murders
TORONTO—Director Amy Berg started her interview with the Georgia Straight by asking a question. “Do you guys have the death penalty here?” When she found out it was abolished decades ago, she shook her head. “It just changes the whole thing. I mean, there are still wrongful convictions, obviously, but it just changes the whole thing, having that in the mix.”
Berg’s disturbing new documentary, West of Memphis (which opened in Vancouver on February 15), examines the case of Arkansas’s “West Memphis Three”. The conviction of three teenagers accused of the satanic ritual murders of three eight-year-old boys in 1994 had already inspired a trilogy of documentaries (Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills; Paradise Lost 2: Revelations; and Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory) and drawn the attention of celebrities like Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder, and Lord of the Rings filmmakers Peter Jackson and partner Fran Walsh—the last two of whom largely funded both Berg’s documentary and the in-depth investigation that ultimately led to the release of the wrongly convicted trio.
The focal point of the film is Damien Echols, the only member of the three sentenced to death (and the only member of the trio to whom Berg had sustained access).
Berg, who received an Oscar nomination for Deliver Us From Evil, was approached by Jackson and Walsh to follow the expensive investigation in the hopes it would lead to the trio’s exoneration—which it did. “They sold me on their passion immediately, not that they were trying to, but I could read it in the email. But, really, I spent a lot of time going down there, reading through documents, meeting with Lori [Echols’s wife], meeting Damien, meeting his lawyers. I spent a good six months researching it before we decided we’re definitely making this film. For the next three years, I didn’t stop reading for one day. There is so much information and you can go on a lot of wild-goose chases. I’m not kidding about how many rabbit holes I went down.”
Sitting in a downtown hotel room just after the film’s premiere at last fall’s Toronto International Film Festival, Berg said she had to run down all those rabbit holes because she knew the movie was going to be a long-term commitment. “I wouldn’t have taken the job if I thought he was guilty. The way I talked to myself, I said: ‘I’m gonna go and make sure that I believe he is innocent,’ because I knew everyone who I was going to be working with did. So it was kind of like, you have to believe it, otherwise they should find somebody else to make the film. So I believed it, and it’s true.”
Even with the movie opening in theatres, Berg hopes she’s still not done. She’s said in recent interviews that she’s still following the case in the hopes that one day she’ll be able to add a coda showing the arrest and conviction of the real killer—whom it certainly appears the investigation revealed.
Depp and the Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Maines were so committed to the cause that they both showed up to attend the Q & A after the movie’s TIFF premiere. Maines is also featured on West of Memphis: Voices for Justice, an album inspired by the film that also includes music from Eddie Vedder, Patti Smith, Bob Dylan, and Lucinda Williams. Proceeds will benefit the West Memphis Three.