Toronto International Film Festival 2011: Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory; Into the Abyss
It was a little shocking to see fewer than 40 viewers gathered for this afternoon's press screening of Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, the latest installment in Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's ongoing chronicle of the West Memphis Three case.
Not that this was the only screening, but the movie is news. As you may have heard, there was a major development in the case last month: On August 19, four days after Purgatory was completed, the WM3 struck a deal and entered Alford Pleas, claiming they were guilty in order to be set free while publicly maintaining their innocence. Berlinger and Sinofsky are preparing a new ending that will premiere next month at the New York Film Festival before Purgatory plays on HBO in January.
Despite a tacked-on title card acknowledging these events, what we saw in Toronto qualifies as a work in progress—the film Berlinger and Sinofsky made before they knew the defendants would be released. In purely filmic terms, Purgatory is the least of the series; while I wouldn't dream of seeing the new movie without the others, the first 45 minutes merely rehash material covered in the earlier installments, bringing unfamiliar viewers up to speed.
But the terms of the filmmakers' engagement have changed. Part of what's incredible about the original Paradise Lost (1996) is the level of access the two directors manage to gain to the courtroom and to family members. By Paradise Lost 2: Revelations (2000), their subjects had become more guarded, but there's still a fair bit of sleuthing and some incredible footage, as when victim parent John Mark Byers digs fake graves for the imprisoned men and lights those graves on fire.
Now, in large part because of the earlier films' success, the case has attracted an army of qualified experts, whose findings Berlinger and Sinofsky present dutifully and unobtrusively. They're no longer playing detective, and it's startling the degree to which the ideas in Paradise Lost 2 are simply discarded. (Wondering about the alleged bite mark on one of the victims? A new, even more exculpatory line of forensic evidence is explored.) Unavoidably part of the story themselves, Berlinger and Sinofsky should probably acknowledge they spent the entire second film pursuing a would-be suspect whom Paradise Lost 3 regards as innocent. But shifting perceptions—and the ease of assuming someone's guilt—are a large part of what this series has always been about. The most sobering aspect of Paradise Lost 3 is the footage of the aging West Memphis prisoners, locked up as boys and now in their early thirties. It's the sort of story that could never be complete.
While broader in scope, Paradise Lost 3 inevitably raises comparisons to another Toronto film about death row, Werner Herzog's Into the Abyss. Here, Herzog looks at a Texas murder case where guilt is not contested; the man in prison for the crime is now preparing to die. Like Paradise Lost 3, Into the Abyss is a story of family tragedy (one of the film's subjects resides in the same jail as his father). Herzog is also fascinated by the apparent paradoxes of the death penalty—of how the state expends resources executing a man but doesn't help anyone to heal. In one of the more remarkable scenes, Herzog finds the victim's car abandoned in a lot, unattended to the point where a tree, we're told, began to grow within it.