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A&E Blog

Peter Jackson's passion project: West of Memphis

by Dan Nailen
- Posted // 2012-01-22 -

Our geek friends will be thrilled to know director Peter Jackson is a pretty down-to-earth, rumpled guy in real life, which clearly hasn't cramped his ability to imagine the fanciful Lord of the Rings world, and his upcoming version of The Hobbit.

During Sundance 2012, though, Jackson is on hand to help promote West of Memphis, a documentary about the West Memphis Three case that Jackson personally got involved with during the past five years or so, supplying funding for lawyers, DNA testing and other needs as supporters fought to get three boys convicted of a heinous murder despite a glaring lack of evidence released from prison. 

Jackson and the other celebrity supporters of the WM3 -- folks like Eddie Vedder, Johnny Depp and Dixie Chicks' Natalie Maines -- ultimately proved a vital part of getting Damian Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley released from the Arkansas penitentiary in 2011, which West of Memphis illustrates.

Saturday, Echols, his wife, Lorri Davis, and the WM3 legal team joined Jackson and director Amy Berg (familiar to Sundancers for her documentary Deliver Us From Evil) for a roundtable discussion of the film, which turned out to be a hot event for the media who packed a tent at Park City's Blue Iguana.

While Jackson, Berg and and the others on hand all expressed shock and outrage at the lack of justice that led to the trio being convicted 18 years ago, and at the system that seemed more interested in avoiding looking bad than hearing the truth about the case, the most poignant moment came from Echols, wearing sunglasses because his eyesight suffered after spending 18 years on death row. He described how he couldn't let the efforts to get him out of jail affect him too much in his day-to-day prison life.

"I was conscious of pretty much everything going on in the case," Echols said. "But I had to distance myself on the inside. I had to make a world for myself on the inside, or I'd go crazy."

Jackson described Berg as the perfect person to take on the project once he realized a new film (following three documentaries under the Paradise Lost name) could help move the case forward and help the WM3.

"We needed someone brave," Jackson said. "We needed more than a filmmaker, we needed an investigator. And we got the right person."

And Berg, for her part, noted the profound effect working on the case had on her: "Working on this film, I just have no faith in the justice system any more."

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