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Commentary, Film Studies, Film Theory, Movies, Oscars

When Movies Matter

As far as I know, there are only two films in the history of cinema that have essentially saved a person’s life: The Thin Blue Line and Paradise Lost.

Randall Adams in THE THIN BLUE LINE

The Thin Blue Line is on just about everybody’s shortlist of the greatest and most influential documentaries ever made. It’s the magnum opus of director Errol Morris, who in my opinion is the greatest documentarian of all time. (He’s also neck-and-neck with Werner Herzog as Roger Ebert’s favorite director.) Released in 1988, it examines the 1976 murder of a police officer in Dallas, Texas. A man named Randall Adams was tried and convicted for the murder in spite of little evidence implicating him in the crime. Through interviews, re-enactments, and a variety of other cinematic techniques, Morris slyly demonstrates – well beyond a reasonable doubt – that Adams was, in fact, innocent, and that a man named David Ray Harris actually killed the officer. Harris, 16 at the time of the killing, was on death row for an unrelated murder at the time of the making of the film. He was interviewed extensively by Morris for the documentary and essentially confesses to the crime. Adams was released from prison in 1989 and died of an unrelated illness in 2010. Harris was executed for the other murder in 2004.

The West Memphis Three and the PARADISE LOST filmmakers at the New York Film Festival

Paradise Lost is actually three films, and there’s a pretty good chance you’ve heard about them in the media at some point over the last year. The original film, first shown on HBO in 1996 and directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, examines the murder of three children in West Memphis, Arkansas in 1993 and the subsequent conviction of three teenagers for the crimes. Those teenagers – Jessie Misskelley, Jason Baldwin, and Damien Echols – came to be known as the West Memphis Three, and the film provoked national outrage due to the lack of any substantial evidence of their guilt. In spite of this, however, the trio were repeatedly refused requests for a new trial. A follow-up film, Paradise Lost 2: Revelations, was shown on HBO in 2000, and a final film, Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, was released last year. During the making of the last film, a complicated legal arrangement was made between the three men and Arkansas prosecutors in which they would be released in exchange for so-called ‘Alford pleas,’ in which the accused assert their innocence but acknowledge that the state has enough evidence to convict them. (It is therefore technically considered a ‘guilty’ plea, though outside of the West Memphis prosecutor’s office virtually no one, including many of the family members of the victims, actually believes the men to be guilty.) After 18 years in prison, they were finally released on August 19, 2011, and proceeded to go on a whirlwind tour of every media outlet imaginable. Meanwhile, Berlinger and Sinofsky frantically re-cut the ending of their film, and Paradise Lost 3 finally premiered in its completed form at the New York Film Festival in October before airing on HBO only a few weeks ago. Last week, the film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary, and right now it looks to be the favorite to walk away with the prize. If that happens, my guess is that you’ll see Misskelley, Baldwin, and Echols up on stage alongside the filmmakers.

Incidentally, there’s also another film about the case that was just released. West of Memphis is directed by Amy J. Berg and produced by Peter Jackson of Lord of the Rings fame, and it just premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. It will be given a wider release later in the year.

It’s all pretty amazing, isn’t it? The same art form that gives us Michael Bay movies can also help to right real-world injustices. With all of the attention that is paid in North America to Hollywood blockbusters and celebrity culture, it’s important to remember that cinema has a long tradition of social activism, ranging from the agitprop of the early Soviet filmmakers to the revolutionary aspirations of the so-called Third Cinema. In the case of both The Thin Blue Line and the Paradise Lost films, the skill of the filmmakers in investigating the cases in question led to the public outcry necessary to force change. And make no mistake – the skill involved was substantial.

The Paradise Lost films and The Thin Blue Line have a lot in common beyond their distinction of helping free the wrongly incarcerated. Both films utilize an unobtrusive style that slowly peels away an objective truth. These films aren’t postmodernist. As Errol Morris himself told the Harvard Business Review in 2008, “I don’t believe in the postmodern notion that there are different kinds of truth. There is one objective reality, period. Either someone was shot or he wasn’t.” If you’ve seen just about any show on A&E, you’re already familiar with the style employed in these films; shows like American Justice and Cold Case Files freely borrow from Morris’ techniques in The Thin Blue Line, albeit with the addition of heavy-handed ‘voice of God’ narration that Morris avoids.

In recent years, exciting work (for me, at least) has been done in the field of documentary film theory in order to explain and categorize these types of stylistic trends. In 1991, Bill Nichols, a film theoretician and scholar who current teaches at San Francisco State University, kicked off this cycle with his book Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary. This book represented the first real attempt to systematically apply film theory to documentary film, and it ignited a debate in academic circles that resulted in another book by Nichols, 2001’s Introduction to Documentary. That volume incorporated many of the developments that had been made in the ten years in between the two books, and it has become arguably the standard text in the study of documentary film.

The major breakthrough that Nichols made was the introduction of the concept of ‘documentary modes,’ or different categories of documentaries. Each of these modes reflects different stylistic and philosophical approaches that filmmakers have chosen to use over the years. While I won’t go into great detail about all of the various modes (click here for a brief rundown if you’re interested), the two modes that are applicable to The Thin Blue Line and Paradise Lost are the reflexive and participatory modes. In the reflexive mode, Nichols says, the filmmaker speaks “not only about the historical world but about the problems and issues of representing it as well,” while participatory mode films “center on the past and how those with knowledge of it now recount it.” Furthermore, in participatory documentary “filmmakers make use of the interview to bring different accounts together in a single story. The voice of the filmmaker emerges from the weave of contributing voices and the material brought in to support what they say.” This last line accurately summarizes both The Thin Blue Line and the Paradise Lost films; in neither case do the filmmakers explicitly tell you who’s innocent and who’s guilty, but they skillfully use their bag of cinematic tricks – interviews, editing techniques, the use of found footage (news reports, courtroom footage, etc.), re-enactments (in The Thin Blue Line), and much more – to let the truth slowly shine through.

Stylistic similarities aside, I find the extent to which these films became major parts of the stories they were documenting to be really fascinating. Let’s face it: most documentaries, no matter how well-intentioned they may be, don’t actually make that big a difference. The Cove may highlight the barbarity of the annual dolphin slaughter in Japan, and Michael Moore may rail against the greed of corporate America, but unfortunately these things continue uninterrupted. In the case of The Thin Blue Line, though, Morris’ examination of the murder case was so complete that it simply couldn’t be ignored, even by the prosecutors that he had thoroughly embarrassed in the film. The makers of Paradise Lost got to know the West Memphis murder case so well that they actually uncovered some evidence that the police hadn’t found: a speck of blood on a knife given to them by a potential suspect. These facts raise questions about issues of representation in documentaries, to wit: how do you objectively cover events that you yourself have become a part of? The makers of Paradise Lost chose an interesting middle road: they show people making reference to their own films, and they occasionally appear themselves on camera, but they generally refrain from addressing the audience directly. For Errol Morris, his involvement in the Randall Adams case continued even after the film was released and Adams was set free. Adams and Morris had a disagreement over a contract that Adams had signed that gave Morris the rights to Adams’ life story. This led to legal action and a monetary settlement between the two, in spite of the fact that Morris had literally saved Adams’ life.

Perhaps even more astounding is the fact that neither Morris nor the duo behind Paradise Lost went into their films with the intention of overturning the convictions in question. Morris was originally drawn to the case out of an interest in the infamous psychiatrist Dr. James Grigson, who was called upon is several Texas death penalty cases as a prosecution witness who gave testimony claiming that the defendants were very likely to commit murder again if they weren’t convicted. His research and professional practices were subsequently shown to be extremely questionable. Grigson had testified again Randall Adams, which is what originally caused Morris to reach out to Adams, and it was only after interviewing him that he began to believe in Adams’ innocence. The Paradise Lost filmmakers, for their part, always intended to make a film about the West Memphis child murder case, but only came to believe in the innocence of the defendants after they began their investigation.

Personally, I love documentary films. While a fairly large chunk of the viewing public seems to find them boring, I challenge anyone to watch The Thin Blue Line or the Paradise Lost trilogy and not get caught up in the real-life dramas that are far more horrifying than anything you’d see in a fiction film. For Randall Adams, Jessie Misskelley, Jason Baldwin, and Damien Echols, these films were the difference between freedom and a life spent in prison – or, in the case of Echols, the difference between freedom and the electric chair. Bravo to Errol Morris, Joe Berlinger, and Bruce Sinofsky for making a real difference in the world, and reminding us of the true power of cinema.

Don’t just listen to me, though. Check out the official trailer for Paradise Lost 3, which includes a pretty powerful statement from Damien Echols talking about how the filmmakers saved his life:



If you want to know more about the West Memphis Three case, check out Wikipedia (it gives a pretty decent overview of what is a really complicated case), visit the site for the West Memphis Three Support Fund, or watch the Paradise Lost movies themselves, though the first two are pretty hard to find.

From a dispassionate, film critic point-of-view, the Paradise Lost trilogy are all good movies, but The Thin Blue Line is a GREAT movie. It would make my personal Top 10 list of 80s movies, and would be #1 if I made a list of the greatest documentaries of all time. Go see it!

Here’s the New York Times obituary for Randall Adams. It includes a pretty good overview of the wrongful conviction, the film, and what his life was like after he was set free. An amazing fact: under current laws that stipulate a payout for every year a person is wrongfully incarcerated, he would have walked away from prison with nearly a million dollars. Under the laws of that era, though, he didn’t get a dime.

A personal side-note: one of the best classes I ever took in film school was all about documentaries. We studied Michael Moore (who I hate) and Errol Morris (who I love), and the final paper I wrote for that course was an examination of Errol Morris’ films through the lens of Bill Nichols’ theories. The research I did for that paper informed parts of this article. That paper helped me get accepted to a couple of really good graduate schools, so it’s definitely one of my personal favorites.

And a bit more about Errol Morris. He’s a genius. Seriously. If you haven’t seen any of his films, I implore you to check them out. He’s made a bunch of films about a variety of interesting and crazy topics: Mr. Death about a Holocaust-denying maker of execution equipment, Gates of Heaven about people who run pet cemeteries, The Fog of War about former U.S. Secretary of Defence Robert S. McNamara (that one finally won Morris an Oscar), and more. His latest film, Tabloid, will have you laughing out loud.


About A.J. Simpson

Creator and moderator of I Wonder if You Wonder.

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