Review by Ken Burke West of Memphis
A documentary that’s just as effective in convincing you that the 3 men convicted of a horrible crime are guilty as it is in convincing you that they are innocent. Chilling.
Interviews with 6 former directors of Israel’s counterterrorism agency, Shin Bet, about their past policies against Palestinian revolutionaries and their changed attitudes now.
In my opinion, what makes a successful documentary is not the “truth” that the film reveals so much as how effective it is in conveying its intended message, essentially how persuasive it is in convincing a viewer of a sense of some “truth” (the intention of all documentarians because these filmmakers aren’t making newsreels or instructional videos; they, from the earliest days of Robert Flaherty [Nanook of the North, 1922] and Pare Lorentz [The River, 1938] to the more contemporary work of Michael Moore [Fahrenheit 9/11, 2004] and Morgan Spurlock [Super Size Me, 2004] are trying to convince you of something that passionately matters to them), even if upon later reflection you might alter your opinion because of other evidence you acquire not presented from that given doc’s perspective or based on your conclusion that you were effectively persuaded at the time of viewing but not ultimately convinced when reconsidered from a hindsight perspective. A great—or, at least instructive, if the ghastly content is too offensive to allow “great” into your evaluation—example of the persuasive power of a successful documentary is Leni Riefenstahl’s all-time classic Triumph of the Will (1935; free download at http://archive.org/details/TriumphOfTheWilltriumphDesWillen), glorifying Hitler’s ascent to power as the embodiment of the "superior" German identity, a self-conception that was deflated badly in the chaotic years after the Kaiser’s defeat in WW I. While there is nothing about this film’s content that I admire, as this egomaniacal dictator sets out on his program of world conquest and racial “cleansing,” I have to admit tremendous admiration for the manner in which Riefenstahl presented Der Füher as the savior of the Teutonic masses, with up-angles that exaggerated his prestige and power and a montage approach that showed the learned lessons of Eisenstein in overwhelming the viewer with visual information that seems indisputable given its complete domination of the depicted environment. (In this case, with scene after scene of marching soldiers, emblems of Nazi power, and audiences enthralled with “the master’s” commanding presence, footage so effective that Frank Capra used it as well in his series of Why We Fight propaganda pieces produced to convince a formerly-isolationist American home front audience of the necessity of stopping the spread of this grotesque Fascist plague. This is all also reminiscent of a documentary on Joseph Campbell in which he discusses the persuasive power of a well-crafted myth, as he tells of a friend interred in a concentration camp where Hitler once came to visit. The friend recounted to Campbell [in voiceover, with scenes from Triumph …] how, even though this man knew Hitler to be the cause of death for uncounted numbers of his countrymen—and, presumably, himself soon—the pageantry around the visit, which the assembled prisoners were forced to watch, was so powerfully effective that it was all the condemned man could do to keep his own arm from rising up in a salute to such a “triumphant” presence.) This is the essence of a successful documentary (or any form of persuasion) to me, that it can inspire you to embrace its message when viewing it, even as you might find yourself pondering—or flat out rejecting, I hope, in the case of Triumph of the Will—the veracity or the acceptance of that message after the fact.
Our first successfully powerful documentary under consideration this week is West of Memphis, an astounding presentation of the seductive power of a well-designed “factual narrative” in not only being able to present “evidence” that can easily convince a viewer of the guilt of 3 teenagers accusing of horrific murders of 3 young boys on May 6, 1993 but can also reverse the process and just as convincingly exonerate them of these crimes. Based on what you see in the historical footage in the first segment of this film—the images from the time of the killings, the seemingly reasonable links between the mutilated conditions of the victims and the supposed Satanic cult obsessions of the “killers,” and the overwhelmingly negative viewpoints of local community residents—you’d have every reason to accept this section of West of Memphis as a documentation of a tragic event where the brutal, demented antagonists of this drama will get their just rewards in prison or through execution in the case of the main “perpetrator,” the anti-social Damien (What more evidence do you need than a demonic name such as that?) Echols. Yet, by the end of West of Memphis those same successful tactics of interviews, photographic “evidence,” and community testimony—now being aimed at another potential suspect—are used to rehabilitate the images of the 3 “killers” and show them in the sympathetic light of being victims themselves, victims of a rush to justice to bring about a sense of closure in a community devastated by the terrible crime committed in a backwoods creek 20 years ago this coming May. As we’re introduced to the trauma that so tragically disturbed this Arkansas town of West Memphis, a suburb of their more famous neighboring city right across the Mississippi, we find a quick sense of assumption of guilt aimed at Damien, his friend Jason Baldwin, and their acquaintance Jessie Misskelley Jr. (not to make light of anything as serious as what this doc portrays, but having grown up in the South myself I can imagine the ribbing this kid dealt with in grammar school because of his name; no wonder he was perceived as anti-social, a situation I’m sure that was exacerbated by his borderline intelligence of a 72 IQ), although for no particular reason substantiated with tangible evidence, just assumptions and a virtually-forced confession from Misskelley, a mentally-deficient kid easily swayed (as it turns out) by the law officers who arrested him to simply agree with “facts” of the murders that they were feeding him.
Other improper aspects of the “investigation” include the situation that the medical examiner in this jurisdiction was a quasi-employee of the prosecutor’s office; the trial itself also goes off the deep end with its presentation of the proposed cruelty of the crimes with an emphasis on “gouging” and “cutting,” made into a marvelously mocking montage by the West of Memphis team, using imagery and quick cuts that emphasize a calculated-cruelty approach intended to demonize the defendants. (Reminding me of my time on a Dallas murder jury in the early 1980s when I was also required to pass judgment on a barely-adult man from the lower echelon of society—just like the situation for the West Memphis teens—in a scenario where the prosecutor led off with color photos of a decomposing corpse in a lake, a marvelous post-breakfast way to start your day [my guy was found guilty too, but under Texas law—a place you never want to be—just because he admitted he was part of the situation of the felony he was already guilty even though he claimed he was there but didn’t take part in the stabbing; unlike in the West Memphis case where those 3 never testified against each other, my poor guy had damaging testimony from the convicted killer so we had little choice except in determining what sentence to recommend for this 19 year-old hopeless case—hmm, his sentence is just about up; I hope he doesn’t come looking for me, assuming he survived all these years, a serious reason why Echols was wiling to find some sort of after-the-conviction plea-bargain because of his fear that he’d die in prison, even before he reached the “ripe old age” of 40, either from illness or assassination.)
From there, things go swiftly bad for the guys who came to be known as the “West Memphis Three” during their years of challenge to their verdicts, of which West of Memphis was only the last in a series of other media events, including the Paradise Lost doc trilogy made by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky for HBO (1996-2011. The first installment, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills [with official details at the following website: http://www.hbo.com/documentaries/paradise-lost-the-child-murders-at-robin-hood-hills/index.html], all 2 hours 32 minutes of it, is available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6qoXVjcKjLE, but, ironically it’s the final one, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory [official website at http://www.hbo.com/documentaries/paradise-lost-3-purgatory/index.html; seemingly not as easy to get the whole thing as with the other 2, but if you wish you can start here and see what you find: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2DupFgrdaV4], which was nominated for Best Documentary Feature for the 2011 Oscars [the first Paradise Lost did get an Emmy for Outstanding Informational Programming, while the second one, Paradise Lost 2: Revelations (2000) came up short of its cinematic siblings, although you can download it if you like at http://www.movie2k.to/Paradise-Lost-2-Revelations-watch-movie-1291940.html and visit its website at http://www.hbo.com/documentaries/paradise-lost-2-revelations/index.html], but West of Memphis, which compresses the Berlinger and Sinofsky material from another directorial perspective into a single 146 min. film, is the one that’s getting the most sustained attention even without a nomination for the 2012 Oscars.). However, this final attempt at vindication proved to be the critical one as exonerating evidence was finally located during the process of this round of filmmaking, as the result of investigations financed by the West of Memphis producers leading to the release of Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley but not the clearing of their records, which makes the case still somewhat unresolved, even in the midst of the triumph we’re allowed to witness in the final segment of West of Memphis upon the April 2011 release of these guys who found themselves the collateral damage of a community and state’s rush to judgment. (As we see in the current film there was little interest by the legal establishment of Arkansas to follow up on challenges to the viability of the evidence that led to the convictions until November 2010 when the state’s Supreme Court finally granted a hearing to explore whether there was substantial enough new evidence to warrant a retrial; however, even the scheduling for the hearing kept being dragged out by the prosecutors until a date of December 2011 was finally set—it’s very clear in watching interviews with the prosecuting attorney that he had no desire to get this case back in court again, just as the original trail judge had no interest in re-examining the facts of a horribly flawed process, even when an original trial witness admitted lying on the witness stand; further, implications that the prosecutors helped plant so-called “damning evidence” don’t give us much reason to doubt Echols’ contention that “miscarriage of justice” is a sanctioned sport in Arkansas—whaddya say ‘bout that, Bill and Hillary? Or maybe that's why you live in New York now.)
Not only is this current exploration of the sad story of the West Memphis Three inspired by other documentaries, the first Paradise Lost film inspired famed New Zealand director Peter Jackson (he of the many Oscars and great financial rewards associated with making movies about hobbits, wizards, dragons, etc.) and his wife, Fran Walsh, to finance new explorations into the case in 2005 (one that also brought in support from other celebrities such as Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder [Pearl Jam], and Natalie Maines [the Dixie Chicks]), which eventually linked them up with director Amy Berg and a new producer, Lorri Davis, who got so involved with the situation that she got personally involved with Echols as well (also a producer of the final product), eventually marrying him while he was still on Death Row (all involved with this film demonstrate their personal passion for the situation, providing their own narration rather than implying something more “objective” by just using statements from newsreels and interviewees). Now that Echols and the other two are free they still want full vindication because even though they were allowed to enter what’s called an Alford plea—a very complex legal maneuver in which they maintain their innocence but they also technically plead guilty to the charges—with such a “resolution” on the books the case is officially closed but it allows the judge to determine a sentence without a jury trial. For the West Memphis Three this resulted in an acceptance of time served and release from prison but leaves the ex-con felon stain on their records and effectively shuts down the hunt for the real killer, heavily implicated to be Terry Hobbs (a creepy guy if you ever saw one), the stepfather of one of the slain boys, so maybe this story hasn’t seen it’s cinematic finale yet. The most evocative shot in this film comes toward the beginning when we see the familiar yellow tape with the words "POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS” on it, yet the tape was upside-down when put up as a barrier so when the camera equally shoots it from an upside-down position it renders the words in legible fashion but with the background in defiance of gravity. Truly this is indicative of the topsy-turvy world of juggled justice in this Evangelically-influenced town where guilt is initially easily assigned just because of hostility toward typical teenage personas of rejecting social norms in dress and music tastes (all along, Echols said that his interest was in magic, not the occult, so he was just trying to look and act mysterious, not homicidal) then is shifted over the years as more and more doubts are raised by investigative documentarians, leading to increasing calls in the community and beyond for a new, fair trial and a change of attitude toward the convicted, especially in the thoughts and statements of the father of one of the murdered boys.
Just as the Three were effectively implied at first through newsreel footage, evidentiary photos, and local testimony to be the devil’s own spawn guilty of a heinous crime against human decency, they are then depicted as maturing men honorably resisting the assignment of guilt—Echols especially displaying admirable tolerance for his former persecutors—while recent testimonials from West Memphis citizens, demonstrations of how large local scavenger turtles in the stream where the murdered kids were found likely caused the “mutilations,” and interviews with the intransigent authorities who refuse to admit their former clumsy conclusions all enhance the perceived—and convincing—innocence of Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley, even though the “evidence” that seemingly clears them is just as circumstantial as that which convicted them. My heart rides with them over the bumpy road that often leads to justice in our society, but yet I have to wonder at the end if Hobbs has simply been made to look as guilty now as our famous Three were back in 1993, while he maintains his innocence just as they did 20 years ago. Clearly, it’s hard to know who to believe in a culture where politicians and sports stars constantly proclaim their non-involvement in illegal or improper acts then repent and ask for forgiveness when the DNA “testimony” begins to stack up against them, as it seems to do against Hobbs in West of Memphis. All roads of inquiry point to his guilt, yet the local police continue to ignore him as any sort of suspect, especially given that they don’t need to further investigate a crime where there are 3 guilty pleas on record. It would seem that a slice of justice has finally been served here, in a rare situation where filmmakers didn’t just record the process of exoneration but actively contributed to it. Still, if West of Memphis had just presented its opening scenes as a documentary short subject about how 3 cruel teens in a small Southern town had been rounded up and sent off to pay for their crimes (even with the grainy trail footage, which just enhances the authenticity of the event), I would likely have been equally convinced, just as if I had been an unemployed, bitter, war-broken German in 1935 looking at Hitler as the savior of my condition and my heritage I might have been convinced by the footage of Triumph of the Will of the rightness of his cause (and don’t get me wrong, as I begin this review’s transition to a story about contemporary Israel, that I have any sympathy or admiration for Hitler—I wish he had suffered the fantasy assassination depicted in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds  instead of slipping away quietly into suicide at the end of WW II in a protected bunker [inglorious, indeed!]).
The cinema in all of its forms—narrative, experimental, documentary, informational, and educational—is a very powerful instrument of communication, persuasion, and content deliverly. Berg and company have persuaded me that Echols and company are rightfully released from the injustice of the wasted, unjust years of incarceration imposed upon them. That’s successful filmmaking at its best—and West of Memphis is very successful, with its consistently fast pacing and dramatic events, in exposing the easy swings to irrationality that prejudice leads us to, along with the unjust consequences that come from such blind determination—but I just have to hope that these talented filmmakers have led us to at least a level of partial justice for the West Memphis Three and not been blinded themselves by the cunning of a clever magician. Normally, I try to find some way to break away to song somewhere during the review, just to give some variety to my endless words and to provide a little cross-media interaction, but the subjects of our analysis this week don’t lend themselves easily to light-hearted diversions so regarding injustice in the complex annals of the law as seen in West of Memphis here’s a reversed situation, Bob Dylan’s sad-but-true story of a guilty killer not facing proper retribution in "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll," a song about justice blinded rather than impartial blind justice (every time I hear this terrible tale told in such a moving manner it's clearly "the time for [my] tears").
There’s certainly a case of cultural—or should I say intercultural—blindness being depicted in another excellent documentary now available in our theatres (opening for many of us after the fate of the Documentary Feature Oscar has been decided in favor of Malik Bendjelloul‘s Searching for Sugar Man, which I didn’t see during its first run, although I’d have to hope that it was terrific if it’s truly better than our next explored film, which was part of its competition), Dhor Moreh’s brave and assumption-breaking The Gatekeepers (inspired by his viewing of Errol Morris’ 2003 The Fog of War, in which former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara candidly discusses his at-the-time and after-the-fact perceptions of his contributions to the 1960s-'70s U.S. quagmire in Vietnam). In this photo above we have the 6 living former directors of the Israeli Security Agency known as Shin Bet: top row, left to right, Avraham Shalom (1980-1986), Ami Ayalon (1996-2000), Yaacov Peri (1988-1994); bottom row, left to right, Yuval Diskin (2005-2011), Avi Dichter (2000-2005), Carmi Gillon (1994-1996). Although the organization has been in existence since Israel’s declaration of independence in 1948, it rose to more prominence after the 1967 Six-Day War against a coalition of Arab nations which resulted in the occupation of former Egyptian territory the Gaza Strip and former Jordanian territory the West Bank of the Jordon River which have been under Israeli rule ever since, although there is now a nominal Palestinian “statehood” in these occupied lands, resulting in constant terrorist activity against both Israeli occupiers in Arab lands and within Israel itself, producing a state of constant warfare between Shin Bet operatives and those who desire to remove Israelis from these war-prize territories or remove Israel itself from the Middle East. Thus, these Shin Bet men occupy a horribly difficult position of being responsible for discovering plots for terrorist attacks (although those who live in the occupied territories would say “revolutionary reaction against the invaders,” and I mean to privilege neither side in my comments here because they've all suffered horrible atrocities over the millennia of human occupation of this small area of our globe ) and stopping them before they occur if possible or retaliating after the fact as circumstances dictate. Given the harsh conditions that these men work under, it’s not surprising that they all viewed their responsibility as one of “kill before being killed,” even when the decision to take out a suspected terrorist carried with it the possibility of killing the wrong person, killing innocent people as so-called “collateral damage,” or choosing not to act because of the possibility of such failures even when inaction might result in vicious killings at another time.
Yet, despite the fervent nationalistic intentions of all of these battle-hardened defenders of Israel, now that they’ve stepped down from that responsibility they all see negotiations with the Palestinians for a peaceful 2-state solution as not only the most pragmatic means of bringing stability to the region but also the morally proper choice in allowing coexistence of related but bitterly-separated cultures. These retired Ben Shin leaders certainly haven’t abandoned the need for security and stability for Israel, but unlike the hard-liner politicians they have worked for and the ultra-conservative rabbis whom they see as just as fundamentalist, unyielding, and obstructionist as their harshest Islamic opponents, they have all come to believe that their former “shoot first and ask questions later” approach against their Arab neighbors is useless and destructive, as expressed in the concern that “We win every battle but lose the war.”
Relatively-recent former Shin Bet Director Ami Ayalon perhaps comes across as the most eloquent and forceful of the interviewees, but they all are interesting to listen to and become almost interchangeable as their comments are intercut throughout the seven segments of the film: No Strategy, Just Tactics; Forget About Morality; One Man’s Terrorist Is Another Man’s Freedom Fighter; Our Own Flesh and Blood; Victory Is to See You Suffer (a Palestinian’s admission that they know the eradication of Israel is not likely but the more they can disrupt daily lives and stability the more they feel they have been successful in terms of making their enemy insecure and constantly tension-ridden); Collateral Damage; and The Old Man at the End of the Corridor. Not only do the former Shin Bet Directors admit in hindsight that the constant attempts to kill suspected terrorists before they could carry out their destructive plans or take retaliation on those who had already committed violent acts did nothing to prevent ongoing counter-attacks from the just-as-determined-if-not-so-well-armed Palestinians but they also agree that the Israeli government’s constant non-reaction to/increasing encouragement of violation of Israel’s own (original but now discarded) laws against new Jewish settlements in occupied Arab lands did nothing except enflame tensions between the combatants, undermining trust all around and dashing any hope of accomplishing the peace process intended by the 1993 Oslo Accords signed in Washington, D.C. by PLO and Israeli dignitaries and witnessed by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, and U.S. President Bill Clinton, with a significant scene in The Gatekeepers of Rabin and Arafat shaking hands as Clinton almost embraces them. However, violence on both sides soon undermined any intended peace accord, with Shin Bet’s mission severely compromised by actions of the Israeli radical right requiring the security forces to turn their attention to hostilities initiated by their own people, which escalated until the tragic assassination of Rabin in 1995, ultimately leading to Gillon’s resignation, with replacement by Ayalon who managed to restore a measure of stability in the country and respect for the agency. Fortunately for the world at large, an attempt by Israeli terrorists to blow up the sacred Islamic mosque, the Dome of the Rock, which now occupies most of what was the sacred Jewish Temple of Solomon, was thwarted by Shin Bet operatives, underscoring how difficult it is for this security agency to keep their Middle East powder keg from exploding, given how many on both sides are willing to light the fatal match that could bring ferocious fire to the whole region in a holy war straight out of the contrasting scriptures (depending on the critical issue of how you read and interpret those sacred writings).
Among the success stories cited by these Shin Bet Directors is one by Gillon about a plot to take out an Arab enemy with a “loaded” cell phone, a strategy that worked (at least the second time that they attempted it) and provided a certain sense of pride for Gillon as it was a targeted kill that took out only one victim, unlike a carefully-directed but still lethal bombing of a building where some Palestinian rebel leaders had gathered; the targets were terminated, but there’s no way that a 1-ton bomb such as what was needed to penetrate a building could help but kill innocent civilians, a known problem that represents the constant level of stress that these Shin Bet leaders faced every day, deciding not only when to pull the trigger but also when not to, in hopes that inaction today would not lead to horrible consequences tomorrow. One of the more chilling interview segments is with Shalom (shown in the photo to the left) who was in charge in 1984 when terrorists hijacked and bombed an Israeli bus, killing dozens of innocent people. The perpetrators were caught and summarily executed by Shin Bet agents rather than being dragged through the motions of a court case; Shalom is complacent about this incident, even if he has softened his attitude toward his Palestinian counterparts over the many years since his retirement. He clearly felt both that revenge was justified and that the spectacle of a post-WW II-Nuremberg-like trial of war criminals would only lead to complicated international scrutiny and more violence as a reaction to the pubic event (obviously he was right about such outcomes—witness our killing rather than capture of über-terrorist Osama bin Laden in 2011 [presented so vividly in Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar-avoided-because-of-political-backlash Zero Dark Thirty]), yet it’s still disconcerting to see this seemingly innocent-looking grandfatherly man talk so coldly and bluntly about the necessity of killing these killers, even as he later admits that work toward peace with his enemy is a necessary strategy for all concerned. Diskin sums it all up with his unsettling assessment of geopolitical reality: “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” This reminds us that there are no objective judges (Solomon is long gone, along with most of his temple) deciding the morality of national survival when each side feels that it has the greater right to the ancestral territory so that the interlopers must be eradicated, just as the judge and jury in West Memphis back in 1993 clearly had a chosen agenda to follow in determining the fate of Damien Echols and his companions. Well-crafted documentary films such as The Gatekeepers help us understand that you can have complete justification for what you do in a given circumstance, then reconsider your position when you see what your actions are encouraging in terms of even more violent response from without and within your own community. This film gives us a convincing account of its subject matter, just as does West of Memphis, but this time we see the commentators within this exploration of national-security decision-makers convincing themselves that what previously seemed so clear (just like the guilt of the West Memphis Three) is now no longer so assured and likely should be reconsidered if not outright reversed.
Once again a successful documentary has been properly structured to convince us of something but also to encourage us to think clearly about what we’ve been persuaded to accept and how it fits with our best understanding of what is at stake with the filmmaker’s position. In these 2 examples of powerful, compelling, disturbing re-examinations of past certainty and present re-evaluation we witness life’s most difficult challenge: how do we determine what we accept as truth but—more importantly—what do we do with that acceptance once we’ve come to embrace it? West of Memphis and The Gatekeepers both do a masterful job of showing the complexity of those situations and decisions (at times in marvelous visual manners, as with the driving editing pace of the former and the stunning computer-enhanced photos and animations of the latter that give a 3-D quality to newspaper images before freezing them back into the 2-D photos that we associate with accounts of “objective truth”). The truth about even excellent documentaries, though, is that they don’t last long in the theatres before they’re bumped out for the latest installment of fast action, hot romance, or creatures even scarier than what you’d find at your high school reunion. If you can catch either of these films while they’re still on the big screen please do so; if not, keep a watch for them when video options emerge because they’re both well worth your time and attention. However, if you want to finish this off with an aural recap regarding the seemingly impossible political situation of the Israelis and Palestinians and those who suffer while trying to maintain order amidst chaos maybe you’ll accept my metaphorical commentary on this by Jackson Browne in “Doctor My Eyes” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x0GhjlmlEwQ, a wonderful live performance from 2010 but you might be able to hear the lyrics better from the original recording at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fqFUmo8VVg0. Happy listening while you contemplate all of the heavioscity (if you’re not way too young for that reference) of these powerful documentary experiences. Long live truth, whatever it may be!
If you’d like to know more about West of Memphis here are some suggested links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2gSdJYU75ac (19 min. news magazine story on the West Memphis Three from DemocracyNOW!, interviews with director Amy Berg and primary prisoner—now released—Damien Echols)
If you’d like to know more about The Gatekeepers here are some suggested links:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=edwQ8UhQt7k (32 min. interview with director Dror Moreh)
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