On May 6 1993, the bodies of three boys were discovered in a wood near Memphis, Arkansas. The victims had been beaten to death, and one of them had been sexually mutilated. It did not take long before the police had found three suspects, three youths in their late teens with a taste for heavy metal, black clothes and occultism. Even before it had begun, the outcome of the trial was obvious, forced by the parliament of the street in an unholy alliance with the local mass media. Despite the lack of forensic evidence, the suspects were seen as guilty and their deeds had been inspired by black magic and Satanism. When the court machinery had finished its job, it had produced three verdicts of guilty: two life sentences and one death sentence. This documentary by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky about the trial and events surrounding it throws an invisible punch into lethargy's midriff. Beyond the image of the sleepy small town idyll where no one bothers to lock their front door, we see a blood-curdling vision. We see a community which piece by piece is ripped apart by hatred and suspicion, and whose inhabitants vainly try to suppress their anxiety by hunting for demons. God seems to have turned his back on West Memphis, and the resulting vacuum is transformed into a battle field where angels and devils are fighting for supremacy. What initially looks like a well-made documentary about a trial, imperceptably changes shape and finally appears as an existential drama about powerlessness, blind hatred and fear when faced by the unknown. This doesn't mean that the directors have let themselves get carried away by a maelstrom of yellow journalism, and documented figments of their own imagination rather than the dark and impenetrable reality which surrounds all of those involved. Paradise Lost possesses on the contrary an almost manic objectivity. The camera registers the events without comment, capturing people's deepest thoughts and feelings, reflected in longer or shorter monologues, and is their confidant at a time of life when all trust has collapsed. But the images we see possess no cool distancing. In some way the objectivity is based on a solidarity with a group of individuals, among whom distinctions between victim and perpetrator becomes progressively more blurred. Logically, Paradise Lost ends with a question. Formally, justice has been done, but whose justice and to what price? Berlinger and Sinofsky provide no answer, aware that sometimes the truth prefers to remain silent. AO

Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills
Joe Berlinger & Bruce Sinofsky
150 min
Joe Berlinger & Bruce Sinofsky

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