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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Midnight Madness Highlights
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Years after the mysterious deaths of their parents, a traumatized brother and sister find the cause of their family tragedy: a cursed mirror whose 300-year history has left a bloody trail of destruction in its wake. (TIFF website, 2013)
A public-housing tenement is plunged into a dark storm of supernatural chaos, in this loving tribute to the cult classic Hong Kong horror-comedy series <em>Mr. Vampire</em>. (TIFF website, 2013)
A renegade film crew becomes embroiled with a yakuza clan feud in this wild, perverse and blood-soaked orgy of outrageousness from cult director Sion Sono (<em>Suicide Club</em>). (TIFF website, 2013)
Direct cinema pioneer Frederick Wiseman takes an in-depth look at the preeminent American university during a fall semester that saw a vigorous debate taking place over tuition hikes, budget cuts, and the future of higher education in the United States. (TIFF website 2013)
Barry Avrich’s account of the life of this most unlikely revolutionary of the 1960s counterculture is energetic, iconoclastic and well researched, examining Guccione’s long and audacious career, most notably as publisher of the hugely influential pornographic magazine <em>Penthouse</em> and producer of the porn epic <em>Caligula</em>. (TIFF website 2013)
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Academy Award-winning filmmaker Errol Morris (<em>The Fog of War</em>, <em>Standard Operating Procedure</em>) continues his exploration of post-9/11 American imperialism with this riveting, feature-length interview with notorious former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. (TIFF website 2013)
Insightful and often hilarious, the latest from documentary filmmaker Alan Zweig surveys the history of Jewish comedy, from the early days of Borsht belt to the present, ultimately exploring not just ethnicity in the entertainment industry, but also the entire unruly question of what it means to be Jewish. (TIFF website 2013)
Canadian Film Highlights
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This hilarious, grotesque, and unique adult animated feature chronicles visual artists Seth Scriver and Shayne Ehman’s trans-Canadian road trip as they encounter dull violence, rampant consumerism and unbridled eccentricity in small towns all over this wide, weird country. (TIFF website, 2013)
Three generations of First Nations women struggle to deal with the demons of their past, in this powerful and affecting drama from actor-turned-director Peter Stebbings (<em>Defendor</em>). (TIFF website, 2013)
Denis Villenueve (<em>Incendies</em>) will be doing double duty at this year’s festival, since this announcement follows the previous announcement of Prisoners. Enemy sees Jake Gyllenhaal playing a University professor, who encounters his exact double. That’s all the information I need to be interested in this thriller. - Sean Kelly
<em>FUBAR</em> and <em>Goon</em> director Michael Dowse makes a surprising swerve into sweetness with this winning romantic comedy starring Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan. (TIFF website, 2013)
Saddled with a lousy job, an infant son, and a wife doing jail time for sleeping with a 14-year-old, a disgruntled Toronto ad-agency employee struggles to deal with his impotent rage, in this gutsy black comedy from beloved Canadian maverick Bruce McDonald. (TIFF website, 2013)
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