There were a couple of emotional and revelatory incidents at last weekend's Indie Memphis Film Fest that demonstrated the power of film to shape real life. Morgan Jon Fox's film, This Is What Love in Action Looks Like, tells the story of the protest against a Bartlett "ex-gay" program called Refuge. The program's director, John Smid (who was the subject of a cover story in the Flyer last month), was at the screening and spoke as part of a panel afterward. It was a remarkable coalescing of film and reality.
On Sunday, there was a screening of Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, the final film in a trilogy about the West Memphis 3. It was a difficult film to watch, with its graphic footage of the original crime scene and the recounting of the bizarre rush to judgment to convict Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley, the three teenagers accused of the murders of three young boys, Steven Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers.
The latter half of the film focused on the WM3's defense team's attempts to get new DNA evidence and fresh witness testimony admitted into evidence in order to gain a new trial. And it was startling evidence. DNA from Terry Hobbs, the stepfather of Branch, was found at the crime scene; no DNA from any of the WM3 was found. In addition, though Hobbs had denied seeing the three boys on the day they went missing, the defense team found a new witness who said she and her family had seen Hobbs with the three boys at 6 p.m. that day, just before they disappeared. Hobbs' alibis were also thrown into doubt.
In August, the state of Arkansas, faced with the probability of a new trial, worked out an Alford plea deal with the WM3 which freed them in exchange for technically admitting guilt and signing a pledge not to sue the state for false imprisonment. There is little doubt that were it not for the initial 1996 Paradise Lost film, the WM3 would still be behind bars or, in Echols' case, executed.
Now, as the latest film makes obvious, the state of Arkansas faces a dilemma: If prosecutors consider the new evidence and reopen the case in an effort to find the "real" killer, the state is admitting the possibility that it falsely imprisoned the WM3 and becomes liable for lawsuits from Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley. If it ignores the compelling new evidence, it is making a decision to let a possible child murderer live free.
The power of film, indeed.
Bruce VanWyngarden br> firstname.lastname@example.org