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The West Memphis Three have garnered an extraordinary amount of attention since being convicted of a triple homicide in 1994 — a crime many believe Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley (18-, 16- and 17-years-old in 1993, respectively) didn’t commit.
Directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky certainly felt that way and they presented their findings in a series of HBO documentaries, starting with 1996’s Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills. After gaining the support of rock stars such as Eddie Vedder and members of Metallica (Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Maines and director Peter Jackson later jumped on board), the film was followed by a sequel, Paradise Lost: Revelations in 2000, and in January 2012, the network will premiere Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, which includes footage shot as recently as August, when the three offered an Alfrod plea (where each defendant admits that sufficient evidence exists with which he could be found guilty, but can assert his innocence) and were released from an Arkansas prison (Echols, who got painted as the Satanic ringleader of the murders, was on death row).
The docs made such a tremendous impact on the general public that Oscar buzz began as Part 3 was still making its way around to film festivals, among them Toronto and September’s New York Film Festival. Indeed, Paradise Lost 3 is already on the short list of contenders, along with 14 other documentaries.
But now comes word that Todd and Dana Moore, parents of Michael Moore, one of the three children killed, have pleaded with the Academy not to consider the movie for any award. Their position, put forth in a letter to the Academy, is that the filmmakers “profited from one of the greatest frauds ever perpetrated under the guise of a documentary film.” The couple contends that public pressure and “gross misrepresentations exploded” after the first two films and that their son’s alleged killers “were unjustly able to enter into a plea agreement, were released from prison and now pose additional threats to society.”
In a statement issued by Sinofsky and Berlinger, the two directors, responded by restating their case. It reads: “We cannot imagine the pain that the parents of Michael Moore, Steven Branch and Christopher Byers have endured as a result of their children being murdered on May 5, 1993. Therefore, despite the many incorrect statements contained in Todd and Dana Moore’s letter to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, we wish to express our deep sympathy for their loss. We also respect their right to disagree with the evidence that has been uncovered over the last 17 years, including exculpatory DNA and other forensic evidence, as well as allegations of juror misconduct. Although members of two of the three families of the victims have come to believe that the West Memphis Three are innocent of killing their children and have been extremely supportive of our films, the Moore family, as is their right, continues to believe in the Three’s guilt, so we understand their frustration with a series of documentaries that have helped lead to the release of The West Memphis Three. We stand behind the integrity of our journalistic process and the information contained in our films which demonstrates the innocence of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley. We also suggest that the State of Arkansas honor the memory of Michael Moore, Steven Branch and Christopher Byers by finding the real killer or killers responsible for this horrific crime.”
So what happens next? To remove Paradise Lost from Oscar consideration would require the directors to pull it. Suffice it to say, the likelihood of that happening is just about nil. In fact, all the chatter about Paradise Lost‘s chances may very well lock in a contender’s spot for the little doc that could. We’ll find out soon enough as nominations are scheduled to be announced in January.
But even beyond awards season, the story isn’t looking like it will get much of a rest. According to Sheila Nevins, president of HBO Documentary Films and the woman who spearheaded the Paradise Lost series from the very beginning, there will “definitely” be a part four. She tells The Hollywood Reporter: “They had to pay the price for 18 years because there’s a lot of people walking around who know those guys didn’t do it and they’re still out there.”
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