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#52filmsbywomen 2 – West Of Memphis

Posted on: February 14, 2016

west of memphis billboard

No. 2 – West Of Memphis (Amy Berg, 2012)

A few weeks ago, a friend on Facebook posted about Serial season 1 and its deficiencies, namely its lack of a definitive conclusion, use of a real life murder as entertainment, and that Sarah Koenig, as a journalist with no background in law, was the wrong person to report on such a complex and emotive event as the murder of Hae Min Lee, which saw her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed jailed. I didn’t get involved in the discussion, mostly because I was already three days late by the time it appeared on my feed, but also because I’m an inelegant debater and know my opinion is of no interest to anyone, myself included. But I did disagree.

The appeal of true crime specifically to women is not a new phenomenon. The strange attraction of the so-called fairer sex to accounts of grisly murders and unsolved mysteries has been dissected for years. Maybe it’s a reaction against a patriarchal society forcing them into an illusion of delicacy and gentility, or because the victims are so often women themselves and crime stories become a guide to what-not-to-do – don’t travel alone, don’t answer the door, don’t make him angry. Or maybe we’re all ghouls. Who the hell knows. But between Serial’s first series and Netflix’s Making A Murderer, female-led documentaries on crime are in vogue.

It was my own ghoulish interest that led me to West Of Memphis, a 2012 documentary by Amy J Berg following the more recent events of the West Memphis Three, three teen outsiders jailed for the hideous, supposedly satanic murders of three young boys in 1993. The infamous case gained traction thanks to HBO’s Paradise Lost series, attracting high profile supporters including Johnny Depp, Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Eddie Vedder in an attempt to get the convictions overturned. In West Of Memphis, Berg investigates the investigation, highlighting possible missed leads, and following the appeals process to a conclusion that sees Damian Echols, his friend Jason Baldwin and an acquaintance, Jessie Misskelley, released, but not exonerated, and as yet, no further convictions for the murders of the three young boys, Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore.

As with Making A Murderer, the controversial account of Steven Avery, an unpopular local man wrongly convicted of rape and suing the county, who is subsequently jailed for the murder of Theresa Halbach, there is the suggestion that the West Memphis investigators, so horrified by the odious crime, may have decided on the culprits early on, and found themselves shaping the evidence around their suspicions. Confirmation bias is sadly not uncommon in police work (how often do TV cops solve a crime on a “hunch”), but equally, rarely deliberate. Making A Murderer hinges on the fact that if Avery is innocent, then the Manitowac County force falsified and planted evidence to convict him, which is a hugely terrifying suggestion. In reality, confirmation bias is more insidious, and often unintentional. Who wouldn’t be suspicious of someone who stands out by not fitting in? Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley were noted in West Memphis for their Metallica t-shirts and disregard for authority. Steven Avery and his family were known for their lower social status, the messy houses and bad reputations. Adnan Syed, though not the only Pakistani-American student in his school, was the son of immigrants who had demonstrated displeasure at his americanisation (Serial recounts his mother pulling him out of a school dance, and how his relationship with Hae was kept secret), and his arrest came at a time when distrust of Muslims in Western countries was increasing post-9/11. It is not so hard to imagine the police forces, the DAs, the communities and the media taking note of how different these people all were, and, consciously or otherwise, wondering, looking a little closer at them than the initial evidence would suggest, and starting to find coincidences that might be something more – a cut hand here, a violent fantasy in a journal there – but might be nothing at all. A murder investigation is not an easy job. People are not infallible, and confirmation bias can leak in when every step of the investigation is under the microscope of the media, a frightened community, and a bereaved family. Most of the time, the police get it right. But sometimes speed becomes more vital than care when solving a crime, and in that case, what happens to due process? But, and it must be noted, I do not have legal training. Who am I to make these assumptions, or try to tell this story?

Authorship in documentaries has always been a contentious subject. Every film student knows Nanook Of The North was staged for dramatic effect, and Super Size Me’s findings have not held up when others have tried to recreate it. Why are documentaries viewed as the gold standard of human endeavour, rather than another form of entertainment? Doesn’t everyone have a point of view, after all? Why does my friend criticise Sarah Koenig for not conclusively solving the murder of Hae Min Lee? Would it not be worse for Koenig, a journalist specialising in American politics and society, to definitively come down on one side or another, make Serial into a J’Accuse statement and point a finger, knowing she had the ears of a large audience (the first episode of Serial was broadcast as an episode of NPR megaforce This American Life, where each podcast episode alone is downloaded 750,000 times, never mind the additional radio listenership)? Unlike Serial’s ambiguous approach, West Of Memphis takes a harder stance, saying no specifics but undoubtedly demanding we look closely at Terry Hobbs, stepfather to Stevie Branch, accused of having a violent temper, a man who took a break from searching for his missing stepson so his friend could teach him Roy Orbison songs on guitar. Does Berg’s filmmaking style force us to question Hobbs more fervently than we would otherwise? Or is the evidence she presents so strong? Berg is an invisible presence in the film, giving us no voiceover or leading comments. The film only shows us what happens, dispassionate, detached…or so it seems. After all, Berg and her editors have chosen what to film, what to include, when to cut a quote. Everything on screen has been deliberately chosen by the filmmaker – as with every documentary, as with every film, as with everything. Objectivity is really a myth.

To criticise Koenig, and other documentary makers, for undertaking subjects about which they have minimal background knowledge and inescapable biases is to misunderstand the nature of documentaries. Lawyers don’t make films. Police officers don’t podcast their investigations. It’s not the same thing. Koenig and Berg and Making A Murderer’s Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos are qualified to make documentaries on any subject, so long as they present facts (as they see them) and the audience understands this to be the case. Serial may be “about” Adnan Syed, but it is really about so much more – the unreliable nature of memory, the American judicial system, how the act of investigation often uncovers more questions upon questions. The one thing Serial is not about is whether Syed murdered Hae Min Lee. I do not have a problem with this.

More damningly, however, Serial is not about Hae Min Lee.

The issue that has always turned my stomach about true crime documentaries, and my own interest in them, is how the victim is forgotten. Always. When true crime becomes entertainment (albeit by asking broader questions than “did x kill y?”) it loses the emotion. The suspects and investigators become characters on a screen. But they are not, and we need to remember this. West Of Memphis treads a finer line – whereas Hae Min Lee and Theresa Halbach’s families decline to participate in their respective documentaries, West Of Memphis has a surprisingly wide scope of interview subjects, including Stevie Branch’s mother Pamela Hobbs, the aforementioned Terry Hobbs (who does himself no favours, not least when suing Dixie Chick Natalie Maines for reporting that new DNA evidence had implicated him – his suit was dismissed, because no force on Earth is more powerful than the Dixie Chicks), and, eventually, the West Memphis Three themselves. This could be down to the high profile nature of the case or the three previous HBO documentaries having prepared the community for media interaction. Pamela Hobbs in particular is a compelling subject. The film depicts her horrible journey alongside the West Memphis Three – harrowing news footage of the moment she hears the bodies have been found, her rage and hatred towards the West Memphis Three at their trials, and her gradual questioning of the convictions and calling for the case to be reopened (alongside the father and stepfather of Christopher Byers – when even the victims’ families are not on your side, it’s a bad sign).

West Of Memphis’s final act focuses on the campaign for and eventual release of the West Memphis Three, and alleged ringleader Echols in particular. After 18 years on death row, he was facing higher stakes, and his eventual wife, Lorri Davis, acts as a guide to the nuances of the legal battles the three men faced. Eventually they are offered an Alford Plea, which allowed them to accept a plea deal without admitting guilt – essentially setting them free without giving them the option of suing the state for their wrongful imprisonment. While Echols and Misskelley quickly agree, Jason Baldwin holds out. Baldwin is an elusive figure throughout the film, and his noble character is revealed in these moments. While he wishes to be freed, he can not bear that his conviction will stand, and the implication of his guilt to remain. It is then revealed that during the initial trial, Baldwin was offered a plea deal in return for incriminating Echols, which he, the 17 year old facing life imprisonment, refused. After panicked phone calls, Baldwin agrees to accept the plea, so that his principles don’t stand in the way of his co-defendants’ freedom. It is extremely moving, but equally depressing, watching someone who stayed true to himself under such great pressure in an unimaginable situation for nearly 20 years realising that this uneven deal, rooted more in legalese than correcting wrongs, was as close to justice as he would ever get.

But for all the voices heard throughout Berg’s film, the victims are still in the background, juggling too many threads over its considerable runtime to fully engage with the three murdered eight year olds. But perhaps that is a grim inevitability of true crime – beyond restating the facts, what more can a documentary reveal before it becomes a memorial video? And yet it leaves a sickly taste in the mouth.

West Of Memphis makes one small move to adjust our perspective. The film’s end credits finishes with an old photo of a billboard for the West Memphis Three tip line, depicting the faces of Echols, Baldwin and Misskelley and requesting information that may lead to their exoneration. In the final shot of the film, the image fades out and their faces are replaced with the faces of Stevie Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore. There is another West Memphis Three, after all, and there are still questions to be answered about their fates.

 

 

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