Here is the transcript of the interview I did with Joe Berlinger, one of the directors of Paradise Lost. The documentary, made in the “90s, details the case of the West Memphis Three, three teenagers in the US who were tried and convicted of killing three young boys in a so-called “satanic ritual’. The case drew lots of media attention, as the boys were seen as guilty-as-charged by their community, because they listened to heavy metal and dressed in black. The Paradise Lost documentaries helped draw attention to the boys’ case – they’re still in jail, with the reported ringleader, Damian Echols, sitting on death row.
The interview might not make much sense if you don’ know about the case – get your basics at www.wm3.org, or on the DVD, out through Warp Films.
Did Damian introduce you to Metallica? How did you decide you’d use only Metallica music in the film?
Because Damian Echols listened to Metallica music and because Metallica lyrics were actually introduced into this absurd trial as evidence that he must be a killer we felt that Metallica music, when we were editing the film, would have to be in the film.
Was Metallica receptive?
At the time – the film was shot in “93, came out in “96, but at the time we were editing it was “95, and Metallica had yet to give any music to a film, and in fact they had a reputation for not doing that, We reached out to them and they really responded to the story and ended up giving us all the music we used in both Paradise Lost movies for free, which was really great, and that established a friendship with the band and that friendship led to the Metallica movie. I came into my Metallica sphere not because I was a heavy metal fan but because I was making a movie about this bizarre murder case where somebody’ musical tastes were actually part of the evidence the prosecutor had. So the band, Bruce and I developed a friendship and stayed in touch which ultimately resulted in the Metallica movie [documentary Some Kind of Monster].
Were they aware of the case before you approached them?
They had not heard of the case before we came along – nobody had until the film came out. They heard about it through us (before the film came out) we showed them a rough cut of the film.
You went to Arkansas after seeing a newspaper clipping about the case. Did you go there with the intention of making a film?
Yes we saw this article. When we went down to Arkansas initially in “93, we had a read a little newspaper clipping that pointed to the kids alleged guilt – the head of documentaries at HBO sent it to us – three teenagers who had just been arrested for these devil-worshipping murders. The article made it seem like they were guilty so we went down thinking we were going to making a film about guilty teenagers. You know, how could three teens be so disaffected from life that they could actually kill. It was also right around the time of the James Bolger case. We thought we were entering a phase or seeing a pattern around the world of disaffected youth. Initially – there’ a movie called River’ Edge, about these kids whose friend gets murdered but no-one really cares, and they go look at the corpse at the river’ edge – and we thought we were going down to Arkansas to make a real life River’ Edge, and after we got dug in to the evidence and met the three arrested teenagers, or accused teenagers, we just felt like “Wow, there’ another story here’. That’s when the film really became interesting – when it became not a portrait of guilty teenagers but of the miscarriage of justice.
Do you take an active role in the campaign to free the West Memphis Three (website, fundraising, etc.)?
Well. Yes and no. We’re always around to lend a hand. There isn’ a week that goes by where we don’ get an email from somebody who wants to screen the movie and do a fundraiser and we always allow that to happen. But we’ve always felt like we can’ directly be members of the online advocacy group because, you know, we try to be very objective in our film. We’ve made the films and would like to help in any way that we can: we’ve donated money, we allow our films to be played – but to be so overtly connected to the Free the West Memphis Three support groupâ€¦ We’ve always felt that in order to maintain our journalistic objectivity in the eyes of others – not in our own eyes – that we had to sort of draw a line and that’s why we’re not all over the website. We’ve just kept our distance and let them do their thing.
Do you think John Mark Byers is guilty?
I would never want to do to him what the community did to Damian because I don’ want to say whether he’ guilty or not. The importance of Mark Byers is that a very strong case – a stronger circumstantial case – can be made against him and yet the police bent over backwards to excuse very strange circumstantial element related to him. I’m interested not in whether he’ guilty or not, I’m interested in shining a light on the fact that they had tunnel vision to convict Damian. And that when you’re going to put someone on death row the measure of the law is beyond reasonable doubt, and there’ an abundance of reasonable doubt, and that there’ way too many open questions, and that these kids deserve a new trial.
In the second film a lot is made about John Mark Byers playing up for the cameras. Did he do that?
He definitely mugged for the camera. He was a little more subdued off camera. My take on that is you could look at the fact that he mugs and performs for the camera as evidence that what he’ doing on camera that that has no documentary legitimacy to it, but I look at it a different way: it’s clear that he’ mugging and performing for the camera and therefore he’ unwittingly revealing something about himself.
Do you think the films have helped change people’ minds about the boys’ guilt?
It’s been strange. The film came out just as the internet was becoming popular and there’ international support for these guys. For some reason it’s really hit a chord with the music world, with Hollywood, and there’ a lot of support. I think it’s made people aware and it’s changed a lot of people’ opinion everywhere except where it needs to – which is the state of Arkansas. Because in this country murder is a state crime. There are state crimes and federal crimes – you’re not always guaranteed a federal hearing and so the people who’ minds need to be changed – they seem to dig their heels deeper the more the WM3 are supported, the more celebrities speak out, the more letters are received, the more they dig their heels in and it’s a very frustrating difficult situation.
Do you think religious fundamentalism (especially in the wake of September 11) is growing in America? Is it creeping into the way decisions are made in the justice system, like racism did (eg To Kill A Mockingbird)?
I hate to generalise like that but the religious fundamentalism that we captured in this film has definitely been growing. That religious fundamentalism is a key ingredient to the conviction not just because of convicting somebody just because they dress in black and listen to Metallica – which, if you listen to a Metallica album it may be anti-authoritarian but there’ nothing to do with devil-worshipping or Satanism. It’s completely absurd and the lyrics are completely devoid of any satanic references. There is satanic metal but Metallica is nothing to do with that. These kids would have been let go if this was New York or LA, but because it was in this fundamental bible belt part of the country where people literally believe in heaven and hell and that devils and angels walk among us. Only in that type of community with that type of mindset could people because of their religious beliefs overlook the lack of evidence. That’s why in NY or LA or wherever, this would have been laughed out of court. But in a place where religious conviction seems to be the most important thing, and a very fundamentalist religious conviction, people would rather believe their religious viewpoint than look at the logic of how many holes there are in this case: no blood a the crime scene, a questionable confession, another suspect who seems to be – you could argue – more likely to do the crime. That’s scary. And you know Bush is in power because these types of mindsets.
Do you think to growing popularity of crime shows has made people more cynical about the justice system in America – or at least more aware that things can go wrong?
I think what has most underscored flaws in our justice system is the growing use of DNA testing which has exonerated so many people. I don’ think crime shows did anything but I do think the birth and the growth of DNA testing is the key to revealing what the flaws are in our system. As a matter of fact Damian is awaiting DNA testing that has taken years for the courts to approve. We’re starting third Paradise Lost – were covering the final stages of the case. He doesn’ have a lot of options left – he’ either going to end up with exoneration or execution.
Is this the last thing he can do?
This is it. He’ got this DNA testing, and one shot at a federal hearing, and the federal hearing may or may not happen and if it doesn’ happen then they’ll set his execution date.
Have you become friends with Damian? More so than with the others?
We care very much about him – yes he’ a friend, definitely. But it’s not like we speak every week. I have felt, in the same way that we’ve made this films, we’re advocates for him – clearly we’re a voice for bringing this case to people’ attention but in order for our work not to be criticised for being unobjective I’ve really made a point of not becoming bosom buddies with Damian or enmeshing myself in the website or support group, I’ve really tried to keep my distance. We made the second film and we’re making a third, and we don’ want to be criticised for being friends and advocates. But we consider him a friend and care very much about his future and I would say I pay a lot more attention to him than the other two because he’ the only one with the ticking clock. The other two have life sentences. First of all there’ the ticking clock, and secondly if his case is overturned then the others will be too. So the attention, rightly or wrongly, most of everyone’ attention, is on Damian.
Though lots of celebrities have spoken out about the case, you haven’ interviewed any of them on film. Was that a conscious decision?
Really the celebrities have come out of the woodwork since the second film. There will be celebrities interviewed in the third film.
Why release the DVDs now?
Circumstance. An international distributor came to us and said they’d like to release them and we said okay. They’ve been available in America for a while. Part of it is that the Metallica film was such an international success, and we talked about these films because we talked about the relationship between Metallica and us. Paradise Lost is being released on DVD in about a dozen countries and I think in part that grew out of people becoming aware of us as filmmakers.
Do you know when Part 3 will be released?
We’re just starting, so it could be years.