This weekend my husband Shane and I were invited to see the new documentary ‘West Of Memphis’ in Portland. The film chronicles the case of the West Memphis 3, three young men convicted of murdering three 8-year-old boys in a “Satanic Ritual” in the poor and rural community of West Memphis, Arkansas, back in 1993.
Basically, it is the case of three poor teenage boys who don’t fit what the community deems the norm, they are metal heads, they are poor, they make dark art, so of course when a heinous crime happens in the community all fingers point at the three outcasts rather than looking to the more obvious suspects, such as the families of the victims, or even a report of a bloody and disoriented stranger at a fast food restaurant a few blocks from the crime scene. Forget all that, heavy metal is to blame!
Shortly after their arrest, HBO sent a camera crew down there to create a “shock-u-mentary” about the “satanic” crime, instead, the filmmakers believed the young men to be innocent and created ‘Paradise Lost’ which has since become a trilogy of documentaries. ‘Paradise Lost’ got others involved – supporters, lawyers, activists, rock stars, and the result was a second trial (which they also lost), a support website, and a legion of supporters.
Famed director Peter Jackson and his wife Fran Welsh got involved with the West Memphis 3 early on and eventually hired a team of forensic experts and FBI profilers to reexamine the case. The results have come to light in the movie, directed by Amy Berg and produced by Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, ‘West of Memphis’ (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pgqP2SS33VI). The pressure they exerted on the Arkansas legal system for bungling the case so badly finally forced the courts to offer an “Alford Plea” to the three young men, which basically allowed them to leave prison while making it impossible for them to seek damages from the state or push for further investigation to find the real killer.
The movie was riveting, it offered many new facts in the case, and the findings of the highly skilled team of scientists and investigators. As supporters of the West Memphis 3, we felt compelled to see it the first chance we got, but more than that, we had credited footage in the movie. We also took a great measure of pride for our own investigations into the case during our year long road trip, and the five short videos we produced regarding the West Memphis 3 that are on youtube (http://www.youtube.com/ayearatthewheel/). It was exciting to be part of something we have felt so strongly about for so many years, and for our part in getting the facts out there. Given our own experiences with witch hunts, we know how easily such things can come about.
In 2007, Shane and I were “shunned” and forced to leave a small town in Northern Minnesota where we had spent two years, we’d come to help my father, we’d started a business and become part of the community, but none of that mattered when the moral minority found on the internet that we’d published some controversial books and said some outrageous things. Shane sympathized with school shooters, we listened to Metal and we with and conducted the last interview with Anton LaVey, the founder of the Church of Satan. Our experience was terrifying and isolating, our lives were threatened, still it was minor compared to what the three young men in prison were going through. Ultimately our own experience is probably why Peter Jackson threw us a bone when he paid us for a brief bit of footage from our year long documentary project. The project which produced more than 150 short videos during our travels recently translated into a 532 book and movie, it offers a number of the interviews we collected regarding the West Memphis 3.
The subject matter of ‘West of Memphis’ was heavy, even beyond the horror of the crime itself, they spoke at length about abuse, and the sister of one of the slain boys discussed during a filmed therapy session how she cannot recall most of her childhood, and tells of being beaten with the buckle side of a belt by her father, who according to witnesses makes him the last person to see the three victims alive. This is the sort of thing that hits close to home for us, and part of the kinship most metal heads share, especially those that have been persecuted (or prosecuted as in this case) for their interests and beliefs.
‘West of Memphis’ is not a popcorn movie (though I tried), and I knew it wouldn’t be, and I knew it might be hard to take, so while looking at movie times in Portland, I happened to notice another movie playing the same day, a movie called ‘Metal Messiah: Born Again Sage’ (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FKu29PwpH1Y). My curiosity was piqued, and I searched the internet for information, I found the trailer which won us over, so we decided, ‘West of Memphis’ then ‘Metal Messiah’. We were both so glad we made this decision in the end!
We raced across Portland (which takes about ten minutes) to the other theater and got in just in time to catch some classic metal music videos. The filmmaker came on stage and introduced the movie, which was a surprise as I had no idea it was a local production, and then it began.
I cannot tell you how great it was to see a metal movie that was obviously made by metal heads, it was not condescending to metal, it was not stupid. It was smart and thoughtful and controversial. It followed the story of Sage a metal head trying to find his way in the world. He finally gets a band together with a couple Nigerian exchange students and they rock! But, things are never that easy, and soon Sage is questioning everything in his life and falling for a Christian girl (Oh No!).
All of the music in this movie is great, and the plight of the metal head is honest and tragic. It also tied back into ‘West of Memphis’ as Sage describes his parents divorce, and beatings from his father leading him down the path to metal and satan, it is something most metal heads including the West Memphis 3 can relate to, but Sage explains it in a way that is honest without being a downer and without taking the comedy out of the movie. ‘Metal Messiah’ was not afraid to touch on subjects of race, homosexuality and abuse in an honest yet humorous manner, and it was just what we needed after ‘West of Memphis’ and the hopeless feeling that justice will never be served in the case of the ‘West Memphis 3′.
It almost sounds like a joke when I say it “Two satanists walk into a theater showing a movie about three satanic killers and then go see a satanically sympathetic metal comedy”. It seems there is a punchline in there somewhere. But in reality, being two “satanists” and lifelong metal heads, it was quite the experience to see ‘West Of Memphis’ a tale of three teenage “satanists” and metal heads convicted of a heinous crime based on their interests rather than evidence, and then 30 minutes later watching a metal comedy that explains the link of metal and satanism, and the pain that drives the rebellion into those worlds in a lighthearted way, was a surreal experience and made for an incredible double feature.