In 1996, filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky released the first of three Paradise Lost films, which document the Arkansas judicial system’s corrupt handling of the West Memphis Three, a trio of misfit teens wrongfully convicted of murdering three boys in their conservative Christian hometown. In mid-August of this year, Berlinger and Sinofsky had just finished editing Paradise Lost 3, in which critical new DNA evidence is introduced, when they learned that the three men (Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, and Jason Baldwin), now in their mid-thirties, had been freed. (They were not exonerated; rather, they entered the extremely rare Alford plea, which allows them to walk free even though they are still convicted murderers.) After a screening of the reedited version and an intense Q&A with the West Memphis Three hosted by HBO this week, Vulture spoke with Berlinger about the surprise ending, inevitable comparisons to The Thin Blue Line, and how their lengthy imprisonment made him think differently about his own life.
During the Q&A with the West Memphis Three, I was moved by what Jason had to say about his post-prison life: how much he loves his construction job, going to see live music, showing off his new driver’s license. We all fuss about so many inane little things and we don’t realize what we do have. In the process of making this film, and while thinking of them in prison, did you start to view your own life differently, to value things in a different way?
Absolutely. I had my first child when the first PL was being made, and I had my second child during the second film. And I was haunted by the fact that these guys were still in prison and my life was continuing with every milestone: The first steps of my kid, kindergarten, whatever. It did make me appreciate my life more, but sometimes you do fall back into your habitual ways of thinking. I think the profession of social issues non-fiction filmmaking, where you get parachuted into people’s lives in these moments of vulnerability — it’s emotionally draining, on the one hand, but on the other hand it does make you appreciate the smaller things in life.