In May of 1993 three eight-year-old boys, Christopher Byers, Steven Branch and Michael Moore, were found dead in West Memphis, Arkansas. Three innocent teenage boys, Jessie Misskelley, Damien Echols and Jason Baldwin, were found guilty of the murders. For years, their friends and loved ones did all they could to free the boys from prison, enlisting the help of world famous filmmakers Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh.
After years of interviews, DNA tests and court appeals, the West Memphis Three are finally free. A new documentary directed by Amy Berg, who won an Oscar for her 2006 documentary “Deliver Us From Evil,” follows the case and premiered at this year’s Sundance entitled “West Of Memphis.” The film may be the most important one to appear at Sundance this year.
“Fran and I thought we should turn to the thing we know how to do and we thought a documentary that can help show to the world the stuff we have uncovered that the state is trying to deny… would be something we could do to help,” Jackson said at a press conference at Sundance.
Walsh developed a relationship with Lorri Davis, the wife of Damien Echols. Their friendship helped spark interest in the case, as well as get Jackson and Berg involved.
“When I became emotionally involved with our friendship, the case followed,” Walsh said. “From what we heard about the case we were astounded that Damien, Jason and Jessie were still in prison. We couldn’t quite believe it.”
“We were going back and forth between keeping it a personal story or making it a straight forward film about the case,” Davis said. “When you’re working with something that’s so heartbreaking and hard you don’t look your best, you’re stressed, you’re tired but at the end of the day you’re so happy that you’re involved in the film. I think they did an amazing job of it.”
Echols was in prison while the film was being shot and most of those working on it weren’t able to meet him until his release. While there, he was ordained in the Rinzai tradition of Buddhism and became well versed in the practice of Qui Gong, a type of energy work.
“I was conscious of just about everything that was going on in the case but I tried to distance myself from it psychologically as much as I could,” Echols said. “I had to find some way to make a world for myself inside that place (prison) just to keep myself sane. I couldn’t think about the case all the time or I would’ve become really eaten alive by bitterness and anger. So Lorri really did completely handle every aspect of the case.”
The crew was able to interview those involved more thoroughly than anyone had in the past, despite the numerous TV appearances the case has had over the years. Intimate details, as well as the human emotion behind them, were brought to full light on camera to help plead the West Memphis Three’s case.
“Every accomplishment that we had in making the film was celebrated because it all felt like it was moving towards something to help Jason and Damien and let the truth get out,” Berg said.
“What I’m entirely proud of with the film and its story is the humanity that’s on display in the film,” Jackson said. “Amy, while she was down in Arkansas, found humanity. There’s good, there’s evil, there’s hope, there’s love,there’s despair, there’s hatred, there’s greed, there’s kindness. Everything that makes us who we are is on screen displayed by the people in this film.”
To learn more about the case or to donate to help the West Memphis Three get their lives back in order, visit freewestmemphis3.org. Also call (501) 256-1775 if you have any tips that could help solve the murders of Christopher Byers, Steven Branch and Michael Moore.