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Peter Jackson may hail from New Zealand, but the iconic filmmaker has turned the failure of the U.S. judicial system into one of his most passionate projects.
Jackson paid a visit to Park City for this year’s Sundance Film Festival to debut West of Memphis, a documentary about seven years in the making, helmed by Amy Berg. Jackson and wife Fran Walsh served as producers alongside one of the controversial convicted youths at the heart of the film, Damien Echols, and his wife Lorri Davis.
Jackson and Berg stopped by THR’s Video Lounge at the festival to discuss their film, which premiered Jan. 20 to an emotional MARC Theatre crowd. At certain points during the screening, Jackson could be seen weeping.
West of Memphis brings its audience up to speed on the high profile 1994 trial, which found three teenage boys guilty of murdering three 8-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. In the years that followed, new evidence was brought forward by a group of critics — Jackson among them — who believed the jury on that trial had made a grave error. In August 2011, the trio — now known as the West Memphis Three — was released from prison on a rare Alford plea deal, but have yet to be exonorated of their crimes.
“This case I’m sure is not out of the ordinary, but what is unusual is that it’s had extensive media coverage,” Jackson told THR. “The original trial was filmed, and a lot of that footage was made into a documentary, Paradise Lost.”
As viewers of the film will see, Walsh struck up a friendship with Davis via e-mail after learning about the case. She and Jackson made it their personal mission to not only assist in funding the convicted trio’s defense but to raise awareness about the case.
“Fran and I just got deeper and deeper into the facts of the case, and we thought … a documentary is possibly the only way that we can think that all of this can be presented to people that actually care about this,” Jackson said. “The state was trying to suppress it all. So we contacted Amy.”
Berg didn’t immediately jump at the opportunity, taking time to weigh her options and decide if the project was something that she could commit to wholeheartedly.
“I was definitely intrigued,” she recalled. “It’s such an important case, and I really wanted to know more, but also there was part of me that was kind of knowing that this is going to be taking something major on. So I was conflicted until I had a few meetings, and finally I met Damien. I went to the prison and met him, and I knew I had to do it.”
The film has made headlines with its debut by introducing new key witnesses in the case, who ultimately could provide the basis for opening a new investigation into Terry Hobbs.
Hobbs, the stepfather of one of the murdered 8-year-old boys, has been the subject of much speculation after his DNA was found on a shoelace used to restrain one of the victims. He has not been charged with a crime.
The three new witnesses in Berg’s film are friends of Michael Hobbs Jr., who allege that Hobbs told them, “My uncle Terry murdered those three little boys.” The interviews came in the eleventh hour, with press attending an early screening in Los Angeles unable to see the final footage.
“These kids have a conscience, thank God, and they’ve come forward with this information,” Jackson said. “Subsequent to that, two other people have come forward who are not in the film.”
Although the statements were initially made back in December, the witnesses were unwilling to appear on film until just days before the premiere.
“They were worried about going on camera,” Jackson continued. “Only just a week ago, we heard that they were prepared to go on camera, which is incredibly brave of them. But it shows the truth of what they’re speaking — they’re prepared to put their names and faces out there and say, ‘This is the truth.’ “
For more from THR‘s interview with Jackson and Berg, watch the video above. To learn more about the film, check back with THR.com as Echols and Davis address their lives since his release from prison and what steps they are taking to move toward exoneration.
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