This past Wednesday night we went to the 5th Annual Cinema Eye Honors event in Queens at the Museum of the Moving Image, hosted by filmmakers (and co-chairs) Esther Robinson and AJ Schnack. This is a celebration of the documentary community like no other, and it is an evening full of magical, heartfelt, and often hilarious moments. This year was no exception, and if you were to ask those who attended about their favorite moment, no doubt they would struggle to name just one.
For me the highlight of the evening came early and very unexpectedly in the lobby of the museum, shortly before we entered the theater. Near the ticketing line I saw Jason Baldwin, one of the West Memphis Three, whose story is the subject of the brilliant Paradise Lost Trilogy by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky (it was to be honored that night with the first ever Hell Yeah Prize). I have been following his case ever since I saw the first film about 15 years ago. Jason spent nearly 20 years in prison, one of 3 teenage boys convicted for a brutal murder that they had absolutely nothing to do with. They were finally set free from prison less than 5 months ago.
When Marty noticed I wasn’t moving forward in the line with him to pick up our tickets, he came back to me with an expression of “What?” I told him Jason was nearby and we had to talk to him. He agreed and we somewhat nervously approached him. It’s not that he was intimidating, if anything he is quite the opposite and has the most welcoming presence, it was just intense to be so close to someone in person who you’ve watched grow-up behind bars on film and the Internet, someone you’ve been rooting for at a distance for more than a decade. I’m always amazed at how close we can feel to people we’ve only met on screen.
Jason and his girlfriend warmly welcomed us, and we proceeded to have the most wonderful conversation. We learned about his recent travels – how he had difficulty crossing into Canada to see a Pearl Jam concert but had no trouble getting into Amsterdam where he attended IDFA. We heard of his plans to go to college in Seattle, and of his girlfriend’s concern that between his studies and love of video games, she will never get to see him.
We told him about Paco’s situation and what a huge inspiration Paradise Lost had been in the process of making our film. We learned that he and Paco are exactly the same age. He asked the most thoughtful questions about the case as only someone with his understanding could, and he listened with every ounce of his being. Jason was present in a way that was so refreshing, inspiring, and absolutely contagious; as we spoke the sounds of the crowd seemed to fade and time ceased to exist. I would have been happy talking with him all evening, but after a while he was called away to take photos with the Paradise Lost team.
As he walked away I realized that whatever he suffered during nearly two decades behind bars (and I know he suffered tremendously) he had emerged as one of the most extraordinary people I had ever met. I felt so lucky to have had that time with him. It reminded me so much of our last visit with Paco.
As we got back in line a bit dazed, I saw Jason break away from his group to rush back and tell me something. I could see the urgency in his eyes. “Tell Paco not to give up”, he said with both sincerity and authority. He knew exactly what those words meant. He waited a moment to make sure I understood, and that I would deliver his message. “I will” I assured him, and with a smile and a wave he was off again. My throat began to tighten and my vision began to blur. I realized that although I’ve heard those words from so many in the past year, coming from Jason they carried more weight than I had ever felt, and apparently it was more than I could handle at the moment, because tears began to roll down my face.
I turned to Marty to and tried to repeat what Jason had said, which only opened the flood-gates further. We both began to laugh– maybe it was at the absurdity of my emotional state in a ticket line surrounded by our friends, colleagues, and heroes, or maybe it was at the beauty of it all. I cannot explain exactly what I was feeling at the moment, but I know I was left overflowing with gratitude and hope. Gratitude for my time with Jason and seeing how well he was doing, and Hope that Paco too would be able to reenter society soon with so much clarity and enthusiasm; with so much grace.
Jan 13, 2012