Our crack reviewer Peg Aloi is also a practiving Wiccan, and thus the ideal person to report on this up-and-coming event that just wrapped up today. Fittingly in this city infamous for witch hunts, a featured film included "West of Memphis," (reviewed by Jake Mulligan in this week's issue of "The Phoenix") a documentary about a contemporary witch hunt -- the wrongful prosecution and conviction of the three then teenagers of the title for a 1993 triple homicide.
The Salem Film
Festival, now in its sixth year,
continues to offer many excellent documentary films, along with fascinating
panel discussions and great live music before each screening. One of the
standout films in this year's fest is West of Memphis, produced by Peter
Jackson and Fran Walsh (the LOTR team) and directed by Amy Berg (Deliver Us
from Evil). Playing to a sold out audience Friday night, the screening was
followed by a lively Q & A with subjects Damien Echols and wife Lorri Davis,
moderated by festival organizer and filmmaker Joe Cultrera (whose docus Witch
City and Hand of God are rooted deeply in his Salem upbringing).
The film picks up where the excellent Paradise Lost trilogy by Joe
Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky left off: the West Memphis Three, teenagers
convicted of murder in the 1993 killings of three eight year olds in West
Memphis, Arkansas, were released from prison in August 2011, under a
controversial ruling known as the Alford plea. Echols was on death row for
eighteen years, and spent much of that time in solitary confinement. After
living briefly in Manhattan, Echols and wife Davis moved to Salem, MA.
On screen and in person, Echols and Davis are soft spoken yet forthright, and
impassioned about clearing the names of the wrongly-accused Three. West of
Memphis was produced in the hopes that some light will be shed on the
still-unsolved crimes and the failure of law enforcement to apprehend a killer.
Thanks to technological advances in recent years, there is now DNA evidence
incontrovertibly linked to one of the victims' stepfathers, Terry Hobbs (who has
also been arrested for aggravated assault, among other crimes). The film
explores the many links this suspect has to the crime; interestingly, another
victim's stepfather, John Mark Byers, was considered a likely suspect for years,
and the second Paradise Lost film Revelations (1999)
devoted some time to this line of inquiry. Echols and Davis have visited Jackson
and Walsh at their New Zealand home, and are credited as producers of the
Davis corresponded with Jackson and Walsh, who offered funds to support more
through investigation, and their collaborative efforts led to the closer
investigation of Hobbs. The evidence and examination of motive are compelling.
Hobbs has not yet been apprehended for the crime, but as more people see this
film it may be that the elusive mystery of these horrific crimes may come closer
Echols was also part of a forum on "Truth in Documentary Film" on Saturday,
featuring film critics Jennifer Merin and Kiva Reardon, and Cairo Cannon,
producer of Dreams of a
Life. This event was somewhat sparsely attended compared to the previous
night's screening, but the discussion was lively and erudite. Despite his claim
of knowing little about documentary films ("I've only seen three and I was in
all of them," Echols offered some insightful commentary when asked to discuss
his role as a subject and producer.
Echols and Davis have taken to life in the Witch City with gusto. Echols is
seen around town in his trademark black clothing (a habit that fed rumors of his
involvement in a satanic cult, which led to a characterization of the murders as
occult rituals of human sacrifice: something Crittenden County law enforcement
were obsessed with at the time). He has a passionate following on Twitter, where
he's as likely to tweet about the current moon phase or his favorite movie
theatre (Cinema Salem!) as he is to announce his latest book tour dates (his
memoir Life After Death is being developed by Johnny Depp for a feature
film). Echols is also a tattoo afficionado, and has gotten inked dozens of times
since his release, including the matching tattoos he and his wife received the
day before the March 8th screening. He has credited his spiritual
practice with helping him survive the brutality and harsh conditions of prison
life, and has said he wants to open a meditation center in Salem at some point.
He's also looking forward to the new Rob Zombie film Lords of Salem,
filmed locally. (Turns out Damien and I are both Rob Zombie fans! We both
agreed The Devil's Rejects is his best so far.)
Sadly, this will be the last posting for Outside the Frame. My thanks to you all, and especially to my team of outstanding film writers, such as Peg Aloi above, and also Tom Meek, Brett Michel, Betsy Sherman, Jake Mulligan, Ann Lewinson, Michael Atkinson, Monica Castillo, Gerald Peary... If I haven't mentioned you it doesn't mean I've forgotten. Best of luck guys; I'm sure you'll prevail.