Paradise Lost opens with grainy crime scene footage. Trees and bracken jerk back and forth across the screen. A dark hollow seems to hide a creek, its muddy bed barely recognisable as the camera sweeps from one end to the other. Then, just as you think that this is the typical mood setting you get at the start of lots of documentaries, the thin naked body of a young boy comes into view. The camera doesn’t linger, it just takes it in – as interested in it as it is in each tree and fallen branch. Then it moves off, only to find another body, then another. The film is not grainy or dark enough to hide the horror. These are not props, this is not special effects. These are three murdered boys.
We aren’t used to this. Modern life shields us from the horror that we inflict upon ourselves. We glory in fake death but few of us ever see death in the flesh. Paradise Lost shows us what death looks like, and it’s hard to take.
Paradise Lost is the story of the murder of three young boys; Steve Branch, Michael Moore, and Christopher Byers – all eight years old. They had been hog tied and beaten, stabbed, mutilated and drowned. For the 25,000 people of West Memphis, Arkansas, it was a shock. This normally quiet city had never had to face something like this. Monsters were on the loose and had to be found.
They were found quickly. Three teens were quickly identified: Jessie Misskelley Jr, Jason Baldwin and Damian Echols. Their long hair, fascination with heavy metal music and strange reading habits made them easy targets. A year long investigation ended with them being arrested – the trial ended with two of them sentenced to life, another to death.
The film takes you through this process – from the very early days when no one knew who was responsible. It focusses on the families of the murdered, it shows their rage and the desire to inflict on the guilty what was inflicted on their boys. They shoot at pumpkins, imagining what it would be like to actually have the accused there on the earthen bank, laughing as they imagine them bleeding into the dirt.
This is also difficult viewing. We should feel nothing but sympathy for these parents, their pain is unimaginable. But the rage directed towards any target is unsettling. Would we be the same? If one of ours was murdered would we also lash out at anyone and would that be OK? Or should we be guided by our better angels? Can we be sure?
What follows these opening scenes is a masterpiece of documentary film making. Who is guilty and who is not? Are the police crooked or zealous? Is everything just as it seems? Is the one who loved the boys the most who actually took their lives?
Difficult. Upsetting. Enraging. Morose. Paradise Lost is not an easy film to watch, but it is engrossing.
A reminder that the dates have changed for the rest of the year’s Smokescreen. This now allows us to partner with the great people at the Old Bank Restaurant here in Dubbo. Now, after each screening, attendees are encouraged to wander down to the Old Bank to talk about the film. Your ticket will allow you one FREE standard drink – thanks to Ryan! – so please take advantage of this and join in Dubbo’s growing film culture.