London Film Festival: West Of Memphis

The deaths of three innocent eight year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas in 1993 shocked and disturbed many. The young victims were found partially mutilated, had been sexually assaulted and bound. Rumours regarding the nature of this hideous crime soon became well known, and it was asserted by the prosecution that the murders had taken place as part of a satanic ritual.

Frightening and fascinating, West Of Memphis documents the events that followed and the subsequent trial and conviction of local teenagers, Damien Echols, Jessie MissKelley Jr and Jason Baldwin, known as ‘The Memphis 3.’

The teenagers were sentenced to life in prison, yet a lack of theoretic and forensic evidence, and suggestions rumours had been the direct result of inaccurate police assumptions, divided public opinion. For 18 years, the judge who had presided over the case refused a retrial, resulting in a strong backlash of dedicated followers and supporters who rallied in they’re hundreds in attempts to pressure the courts for a retrial and to get The Memphis 3 released.

In 2007 fresh DNA evidence came to light suggesting the innocence of the convicted men, and provided new material to posit the more likely perpetrator.

The evidence on which the men were convicted is scrutinised in this film, with fresh investigations offering alternative conclusions as to how the murder victims received their wounds, also attributing material which suggests the teenage suspects were bullied by the police and coerced into giving false confessions.

In 2011 after public pressure, a deal was made with the prosecutors and Echols, MissKelley Jr and Baldwin entered Alford pleas, were acquitted of murder and released with suspended sentences. They had each served 18 years and 78 days in prison for a crime they did not commit.

Directed by Amy Berg (Academy Award nominee for her work on Deliver us from Evil) and produced by Echols himself with help from Hollywood filmmakers Peter Jackson and his partner Fran Walsh, who themselves supported the release of the three men, this is one of the finest documentaries of the past decade.

Images are shockingly graphic and disturbing, while interviews are insightful and honest revealing a great deal more lies than truth. By the end you will be left with many more mixed feelings than you had at the beginning of the film.

Such is the focus of this film, and the unusual collaboration which gave the Director such extensive access to sealed footage and police photographic evidence, (including interviews from inside the prison where Echols was being held) we are given a hugely compelling and enthralling watch.