By Bethany Bray
---- — SALEM — Damien Echols and his wife, Lorri Davis, received a warm reception at the screening of their documentary “West of Memphis” at Salem Film Fest on Friday night.
While the film’s subject matter — the yearslong struggle to free Echols, who was convicted with two others for the brutal 1993 murders of three 8-year-old boys in West Memphis, Ark. — has drawn controversy, none was found at the Friday night screening.
Questions posed to Echols and Davis after the film’s premiere Friday night were mostly complimentary. The couple moved to Salem last year.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” said Paul Van Ness, co-owner of CinemaSalem. “I was afraid it wasn’t going to be civil. ... There was none of that. It turned out great. I’m glad it did.”
Echols and Davis were met with applause as they walked to the front of the theater at the film’s conclusion. Some in the audience said they had followed Echols’ case for years.
When a person asked the couple about the matching tattoos they’d had done recently, Echols turned to his wife to ask what day they had gotten them.
“It was Wednesday!” called someone from the crowd, revealing that Echols is already well-known in his new hometown.
“West of Memphis” is one of numerous documentaries in the 2013 Salem Film Fest, which runs through Thursday.
Tickets to the film sold out in four days — a record for the festival, Van Ness said. The theater moved the Friday night screening to a larger, 154-seat theater and added a second showing, which is tomorrow night.
Echols and Davis will also attend tomorrow’s screening to answer filmgoers’ questions.
Echols was arrested in 1993, charged with three counts of murder and convicted in 1994, along with friends Jessie Misskelley and Jason Baldwin. He spent 18 years in prison, facing the death penalty, before he was released in 2011.
The trio, known as the “West Memphis Three,” were released after entering an Alford plea, a legal maneuver that allows a person to maintain their innocence while pleading guilty.
The story, while fascinating, is not without controversy. Websites have been set up both in support and accusation of the West Memphis Three.
Todd Moore, the father of Michael Moore, one of the murder victims, urged people to boycott the film in a March 8 letter to the editor printed in The Salem News.
“The Salem Film Fest and CinemaSalem should be ashamed of themselves for supporting a convicted child murderer,” Moore wrote. “In the eyes of the law, he is a child killer. It is shameful for anyone to support this monster.”
The documentary paints Echols as wrongly accused and points the crime toward the stepfather of one of the murdered boys.
The film transports the viewer to the story’s setting in Arkansas, with shots of rundown neighborhoods, trailer parks and the murky creek where the three bodies were found.
At times, the accents of those being interviewed were thick enough that the filmmakers added subtitles.
“What a film can do is have you listen and understand. You see the people and get to know them,” Van Ness said. “That’s the power of documentaries. ... It’s better than fiction. You couldn’t make this up.”
On Friday night, Echols and Davis were asked if Salem’s 1692 witchcraft hysteria, and current-day acceptance of the Wiccan community, prompted their move to the city. Prosecutors alleged in Echols’ 1994 trial that the murders were part of a cult ritual.
Their move was “due in large part” to that history, Echols said, “but it’s more than that.”
“(Salem) doesn’t just accept (different religions/points of view), it embraces them,” Echols said. “That’s one of the things we love about this place.”
Echols told the crowd that he hopes to open a meditation center in Salem. He also said he’d like to be exonerated and have the right person charged for the 1993 murders.
“We have to follow up on every little thing, in the hope we’ll come across the one thing the state of Arkansas can’t deny,” he said.
“West of Memphis,” one of several documentaries made about the case, premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival. The film is directed by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Amy Berg and produced by Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, producer and writer, respectively, of the blockbuster “Lord of the Rings” movies.
Jackson and Walsh are among the numerous celebrities that have rallied behind Echols. Interviews with Jackson, Eddie Vedder, lead singer of Pearl Jam, and Natalie Maines, lead singer of the Dixie Chicks, are included in “West of Memphis.”
The 21/2-hour film is rated R.
Bethany Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @SalemNewsBB.