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The Devil's Knot that Bound the West Memphis Three

Posted: 09/04/2013 10:27 pm

When I was sent the script for Devil's Knot, I was immediately struck by the complexity of this true story. Twenty years ago, three young boys were found murdered in a forest. The crime scene was appalling and - most mysteriously - there was no hard evidence. Who could have committed these horrors?

In posing this unanswered question, the film hopefully gets at something much deeper. It becomes an exploration of how we live with evil, how we deal with issues of revenge, how we cope with the moral injury of a community and - most hauntingly - how we deal with unimaginable loss. Devil's Knot shows how legal systems in a town were deployed to simulate retribution, as two characters - a grieving mother and an idealistic private investigator - begin to sense that something is deeply wrong.

In following these two characters, the film doesn't point to a culprit. The answer to the crime may never be found. Mistakes were made, "evidence" was constructed, and important threads were lost. What remains is the infinitely more complex question of how we deal with the unknown. What happened in West Memphis was an unimaginable act of evil, yet the process that followed was determined by the human need to make the "unimaginable" into something tangible and explicit.

If the evil force that killed three young boys in an Arkansas forest couldn't be found, then a comprehensible solution needed to be conjured. For all the talk of Satanic ritual and blood sacrifices discussed in the case, it is my firm belief that the only real act of magic was performed by the prosecution team as they convinced a jury to find three young men guilty in the complete absence of any physical proof.

As a filmmaker, I was of course aware of the four documentaries that had been made about the case, each determining the innocence of the West Memphis Three and each pointing to another possible culprit. In making the first dramatic treatment of the subject, I wasn't concerned with finding actors who looked like the real figures, much as I wasn't interested in finding the actual locations. My concern was to amplify and present the story in a way that allows the viewer to ask the deeper question of how we construct realities to fulfill communal agendas, often at tremendous costs to personal liberties.

My editor Susan Shipton and I worked on shaping this film for many months. At the end of the process, she wrote me a note, which said that the film is ultimately about how and why people adhere to their own versions of an event, to the actions they take when confronted with tragedy even when faced with their own flawed response to it. I've worked with Susan for over 20 years, and her words seem to sum up the feeling of the film...

"It's the knot we are all tied up in and mostly it's just life, until tragedy strikes and a series of events unfold and our responses are bound as if by endless bits of rope of who we are. We make predictable choices with terrible consequences, as if the devil held the strings and knew exactly where to pull. But as the film shows us, there is no Satanic conspiracy, there is no devil at the root of it...just people doing what they do, making assumptions, being lazy, desperately trying to understand the brutal deaths of three children, judges and lawyers showing off...it is us in all our weak and fallible glory."

This film has provoked many such discussions. From the writers who worked on the scenario, to the producers who were so committed to putting together this challenging project, to the brilliant cast I got to work with, to my entire creative team. All of us have tried to reveal this knot, and are now excited to bring it to the world.

Director Atom Egoyan's film Devil's Knot premieres at TIFF 2013, screening on Sunday, September 8 and Monday, September 9.

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