The relationship between life and art is a complicated one. Does life imitate art or art imitate life? Well, they certainly influence each other. In the world of film, filmmakers are often inspired to create out of a sense of injustice or inequality in the hope that they can move their audience enough to change the way things are, to right the wrongs they see in the world. And I imagine it’s very difficult to know if they’ve succeeded. It’s rare that a specific film can claim credit for making some kind of tangible, measurable difference in the world.
This is one such film. It saved a life.
The Paradise Lost trilogy of documentaries spans 17 years, investigating the murders of three boys and the unjust incarceration of three more boys for those murders. But that brief description is not accurate because these films not only documented this tragic story, they became a part of it.
Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory begins by recounting the events of the first two films. But it’s not long before the films themselves become a player in this third documentary. It’s fascinating how much publicity these films generated for the so-called West Memphis Three (Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley, Jr.), publicity that led directly to the establishment of a donation-based defense fund that ultimately righted the wrong that occurred in 1994 when these boys were convicted.
But these “boys” are men now, having spent half their lives in prison. The contrast between who they were when they went in and who they are now is striking. That’s not to say that prison ruined them. They still seem to be of much the same temperament, gentle and quiet. But they seem so naive in the early footage of the first trial. As adults they’ve become much, much wiser. Most notably, they do not think of themselves as victims. They’re able to see life from a wiser perspective than most of us.
If you don’t want to risk spoilers, stop reading now. Otherwise…
Movies like this make me reflect on my own life. If someone can be wrongly accused and convicted with a death sentence hanging over him, and he can see himself as lucky… Well, if he can be happy, what’s my problem?
There is a very moving moment of mutual forgiveness between Damien Echols and the stepfather of one of the victims that stands out against the backdrop of the entrenched error of the “infallible” and unforgiving West Memphis court system. How could they both forgive each other? How could they both not be mired in bitterness and resentment? I think this is another indication of just how much time has passed since this tragedy began.
The irony of the ending is a bit frustrating. Of course, I’m incredibly happy that they have finally been released from prison and Damien’s life is no longer in jeopardy. But the fact that they had to plead guilty in order to get released eats at me. The police are not interested in finding out who really killed those three boys. Yes, three have been saved. But three others have been forgotten.