Peg Aloi at the Salem Film Festival

Our crack reviewer Peg Aloi is also a practiving Wiccan, and thus the ideal person to report on this up-and-coming event that just wrapped up today.  Fittingly in this city infamous for witch hunts, a featured film included "West of Memphis," (reviewed by Jake Mulligan in this week's issue of "The Phoenix") a documentary about a contemporary witch hunt --  the wrongful prosecution and conviction of the three then teenagers of the title for a 1993 triple homicide.

The Salem Film Festival, now in its sixth year,  continues to offer many excellent documentary films, along with fascinating panel discussions and great live music before each screening. One of the standout films in this year's fest is West of Memphis, produced by Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh (the LOTR team) and directed by Amy Berg (Deliver Us from Evil). Playing to a sold out audience Friday night, the screening was followed by a lively Q & A with subjects Damien Echols and wife Lorri Davis, moderated by festival organizer and filmmaker Joe Cultrera (whose docus Witch City and Hand of God are rooted deeply in his Salem upbringing).

The film picks up where the excellent Paradise Lost trilogy by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky left off: the West Memphis Three, teenagers convicted of murder in the 1993 killings of three eight year olds in West Memphis, Arkansas, were released from prison in August 2011, under a controversial ruling known as the Alford plea. Echols was on death row for eighteen years, and spent much of that time in solitary confinement. After living briefly in Manhattan, Echols and wife Davis moved to Salem, MA.

On screen and in person, Echols and Davis are soft spoken yet forthright, and impassioned about clearing the names of the wrongly-accused Three. West of Memphis was produced in the hopes that some light will be shed on the still-unsolved crimes and the failure of law enforcement to apprehend a killer. Thanks to technological advances in recent years, there is now DNA evidence incontrovertibly linked to one of the victims' stepfathers, Terry Hobbs (who has also been arrested for aggravated assault, among other crimes). The film explores the many links this suspect has to the crime; interestingly, another victim's stepfather, John Mark Byers, was considered a likely suspect for years, and the second Paradise Lost film Revelations  (1999) devoted some time to this line of inquiry. Echols and Davis have visited Jackson and Walsh at their New Zealand home, and are credited as producers of the film.

Davis corresponded with Jackson and Walsh, who offered funds to support more through investigation, and their collaborative efforts led to the closer investigation of Hobbs. The evidence and examination of motive are compelling. Hobbs has not yet been apprehended for the crime, but as more people see this film it may be that the elusive mystery of these horrific crimes may come closer to resolution.

Echols was also part of a forum on "Truth in Documentary Film" on Saturday, featuring film critics Jennifer Merin and Kiva Reardon, and Cairo Cannon, producer of Dreams of a Life. This event was somewhat sparsely attended compared to the previous night's screening, but the discussion was lively and erudite. Despite his claim of knowing little about documentary films ("I've only seen three and I was in all of them," Echols offered some insightful commentary when asked to discuss his role as a subject and producer.

Echols and Davis have taken to life in the Witch City with gusto. Echols is seen around town in his trademark black clothing (a habit that fed rumors of his involvement in a satanic cult, which led to a characterization of the murders as occult rituals of human sacrifice: something Crittenden County law enforcement were obsessed with at the time). He has a passionate following on Twitter, where he's as likely to tweet about the current moon phase or his favorite movie theatre (Cinema Salem!) as he is to announce his latest book tour dates (his memoir Life After Death is being developed by Johnny Depp for a feature film). Echols is also a tattoo afficionado, and has gotten inked dozens of times since his release, including the matching tattoos he and his wife received the day before the March 8th screening. He has credited his spiritual practice with helping him survive the brutality and harsh conditions of prison life, and has said he wants to open a meditation center in Salem at some point. He's also looking forward to the new Rob Zombie film Lords of Salem, filmed locally. (Turns out Damien and I are both Rob Zombie fans! We both agreed The Devil's Rejects is his best so far.)

 Sadly, this will be the last posting for Outside the Frame. My thanks to you all, and especially to my team of outstanding film writers, such as Peg Aloi above, and also Tom Meek, Brett Michel, Betsy Sherman, Jake Mulligan, Ann Lewinson, Michael Atkinson, Monica Castillo, Gerald Peary... If  I haven't mentioned you it doesn't mean I've forgotten. Best of luck guys; I'm sure you'll prevail.


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