If you read last week, you saw that I referred to a documentary filmmaker friend of mine having been hospitalized with a brain tumor.
This list of favorite documentaries is entirely subjective, and is a way to honor her, as well as to serve as a weekly count down to the Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto.
Just because we at Ardent do not make documentaries, does not mean we have not been inspired, influenced and moved by what documentarists do.
To All the Documentary Filmmakers Everywhere: please keep rolling that boulder up the hill.
In 1993, documentary filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky were given an assignment: go to West Memphis Arkansas and document the triple homicide of three local kids and their killers. Arrests had just been made in the Robin Hood Hills child murder case; three teenagers, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley had been picked up for the murders of three eight year old boys, Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore.
The resulting documentary film is a staggering indictment of the US justice system, both because of the film’s content and because of the extent of the access the filmmakers had to all involved parties. It went on to great success as a movie at festivals, winning awards etc.; I’ve heard Berlinger and Sinofsky talk about the original assignment in person, and it was very interesting. To hear them tell it, this documentary did not start as any kind of a mission or passion project; they were simply working in-house for HBO and got sent to West Memphis to cover the arrests made in the case.
And what a case.
It had all the timely elements to get people to watch: black clad, Satan worshipping, heavy metal fan teenagers had sexually mutilated and killed little boys in the woods in Arkansas. In the ‘Satanic Panic’ in the US of the early 90s, this documentary would be almost guaranteed an audience.
So off Berlinger and Sinofsky went, to get as many interviews and as much footage as they could. The community was understandably in a state of shock and devastated by the murder of three of its children, and a number of citizens were eager to talk about the experience and its effects on the town’s citizens.
The further the filmmakers got into the process of telling one story, the more another story revealed itself: Berlinger and Sinofsky thought they were telling the disturbing story of murdered children and their killers. But then the moment came where they looked at each other and said “Holy shit. They didn’t do it.”
‘Paradise Lost’ is truly the story of a terrible miscarriage of justice. There is no justice for three boys in the woods; for the Byers, Branch or Moore families; nor for Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley. As heartbreaking as this movie is, it’s also documentary-as-horror; a cautionary tale that reminds us justice is blind. But there is light at the end of the tunnel too; it took years and not one but three documentaries to ultimately tell this story, and like ‘Roger and Me‘ and ‘The Thin Blue Line‘ before them, they shed a lot of light on their subjects. Light that could not be ignored. Light that kept the poor, the disenfranchised, and the vulnerable from being completely swept under the rug.
A small but significant mercy. And what better justification for a documentary could there be than that.