Evidently, I am passing through a documentary phase as FilmJuice have my review of Amy J. Berg’s West of Memphis.
I first became aware of Amy J. Berg through her film about the clerical abuse scandal Deliver Us From Evil. While the subject matter may now be reaching the point of saturation, Berg grabbed my attention by daring to place paedophile priests in the wider social context of a Catholic Church that hates homosexuality almost as much as it hates women. However, while Deliver Us From Evil was nominated for an Oscar, it also saw Berg drop off the map for a number of years and so I was very pleased to see her return to the director’s chair for this high-budget documentary about the West Memphis Three.
Given how impressed I was by Berg’s debut feature, it is slightly dispiriting to find her turning her hand to a film that is unadventurous both in terms of its form and its analysis. Indeed, much of West of Memphis‘s substantial running time is devoted to an extended recap of the ground already covered in the Paradise Lost trilogy of documentaries that have already been made about this particular topic. So while I’m sympathetic to the film’s aims and acknowledge that it’s a perfectly well-made and entertaining piece of documentary filmmaking, I do question the wisdom of making yet another film about this case. Are there really no other injustices in the world? If you are going to make a film about a topic that has already been covered by an entire trilogy of documentaries, I think it is important to do something new with the material and West of Memphis never quite manages to innovate:
There is no denying that West of Memphis is a worthy film and that this worthiness is utterly undiminished by the fact that three very good documentaries have already been made about this case. Nor is there any denying that Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and all the other people working to free the West Memphis Three did a profoundly good thing by using their money and celebrity to help three unloved and unjustly convicted men from Arkansas. There is no denying any of these things and yet these things cannot entirely compensate for the fact that West of Memphis fails to offer us anything that we have not seen before. Hollywood has a fondness for documentaries designed to overturn miscarriages of justice and though certainly entertaining and occasionally compelling, this film never quite compares to either the exquisite ambiguity of Andrew Jarecki’s Capturing the Friedmans or the campaigning psychological complexity of Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line.
It’s hard to be unimpressed about this type of documentary without also seeming unimpressed with the subject matter but I was unimpressed, it felt like a step backwards by a promising director.