A tribute to the work of Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky and HBO Films, as the West Memphis 3 are freed.

Tears welled up last week when I heard the news that the West Memphis 3 had been freed. Like many people, my introduction to the case was via Joe Berlinger & Bruce Sinofsky’s powerful 1996 film Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, and their followup Paradise Lost 2: Revelations (2000).

I had already been keen to see the world premiere of Berlinger & Sinofsky’s Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory in Toronto. Now it seems unmissable. (The filmmakers were shooting footage in Arkansas this week after the men’s release, so the third film will get a new ending before its screening at the New York Film Festival and its airing on HBO in January 2012).

It was HBO’s Sheila Nevins who sent the filmmakers a newspaper clipping about the case (see background here) to start their investigation, and they’ve stuck with the story for the past 18 years.

Berlinger said this week: “To see our work culminate in the righting of this tragic miscarriage of justice is more than a filmmaker could ask for.”

Sinofsky added: “We, along with HBO, are humbled to be a part of this remarkable outcome.”

I’m sure they are humbled, but they should also be praised and given credit for their remarkable role in this story – in much the same way that Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line contributed to the release of Randall Adams in 1989.

I’m not at all implying that for a documentary film to be worthwhile that it needs to get someone out of jail; entertaining or enlightening an audience can be success enough. Yet it’s got to be an achievement of a lifetime to know that films have had a direct impact on getting three men out of prison.

When Berlinger & Sinofsky set out to make the first film, it could have just become fly-on-the-wall journalism, but over the series it has become the most powerful kind of advocacy. These films became instrumental in the movement to free the West Memphis 3 (as has the group Free The West Memphis 3, backed by celebrity funders including Johnny Depp and Peter Jackson.)

As Damien Echols – one of the now-freed men — says in the third film, if not for the films “…these people would have murdered me, swept this under the rug, and I wouldn’t be anything but a memory right now.”

For me, the tears came not only as three inspiring men try to get their lives back, but as two filmmakers, and a company (HBO Documentaries) prove that there are brave and inspiring – not just profitable – decisions being made in the film world. I am not alone in hoping that there could be some Oscar love for the third film.

Or at least a standing ovation in Toronto for 18 years of not giving up.