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Acclaimed Documentary Filmmaker Bruce Sinofsky Dies At 58

Co-director Bruce Sinofsky attends the <em>Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory</em> press day at HBO Studios on Jan. 6, 2012, in New York City.
Michael Loccisano
Getty Images
Co-director Bruce Sinofsky attends the Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory press day at HBO Studios on Jan. 6, 2012, in New York City.

Peabody and Emmy Award winning filmmaker Bruce Sinofsky has died at age 58.

Sinofsky and his longtime co-director, Joe Berlinger, made such acclaimed documentaries as Some Kind of Monster, about the heavy metal band Metallica and Brother's Keeper, about four brothers in rural upstate New York. They are perhaps best known for Paradise Lost, a trilogy of films about three teenagers convicted of killing three little boys in West Memphis, Ark.

Sinofsky died Saturday morning, according to his mother, Beebe Sinofsky. He passed away at his home in Montclair, New Jersey, of complications from diabetes.

Paradise Lost was hailed by critics as a sensitive and thorough investigation into the convictions of the three young men who came to be known as the "West Memphis 3." The documentaries — made over the course of nearly 18 years — included interviews with lawyers and family members of the three little boys who were brutally murdered in 1993 and those of the three heavy metal-loving teenagers convicted of killing them. Rumors in the community painted the young men as devil worshipers.

In 1996, Sinofsky told NPR that he and Berlinger spent nine months in Arkansas doing research and gaining the trust of people in the community. The filmmakers said only a quarter of that time was spent shooting. Sinofsky understood the influence a documentarian could have when shaping a subject.

"I mean, when you're sitting in the editing room and you're making decisions on how you're presenting a nine-month odyssey in two-and-a-half hours, you have incredible power," he told NPR. "You can make some person look incredibly guilty, incredible innocent, incredibly foolish, incredibly hypocritical. We have great power, and we have to be very careful on how we do that."

Paradise Lost raised questions about the lack of evidence in the case against the teenagers and about the fairness of the trial. From the Dixie Chicks to Eddie Vedder, the HBO production galvanized support for the teenagers who were ultimately released from prison.

Today, one of the West Memphis 3, Damien Echols, tweeted his appreciation for Sinofsky:

In Some Kind of Monster, Sinofsky and Berlinger delved into the lives of heavy metal superstars Metallica. Initially, the filmmakers thought they were doing a "making of the album" production. But the vicious squabbling between the now-multimillionaire musicians had landed them in group therapy. In 2004 Sinofsky told NPR that he and Berlinger were equal parts shocked and thrilled. He said that "we looked at each other and said, 'Wow, you know if — who would believe that Metallica would be sitting in a hotel room at the Ritz-Carlton discussing their most intimate problems?' That'd be one thing. But you know, to have cameras and the film crew there capturing all of it was, you know, beyond our greatest expectations."

Metallica paid tribute to Sinofsky in a statement on the band's website. "He became a dedicated comfort and visual lifeboat, while objectively observing the unraveling and rebuilding of our inner and outer selves," it read.

Sinofsky and Berlinger met in the 1980s when they both worked for famed documentarians David and Albert Maysles. Their first film together, Brother's Keeper, about four illiterate brothers in rural, upstate New York, won the Audience Award Documentary at the 1992 Sundance Film Festival.

Berlinger told The New York Times that he and Sinofsky talked about why their partnership worked. Berlinger said they agreed that he was "the intellectual" and Sinofsky was "the humanist."

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Elizabeth Blair is a Peabody Award-winning senior producer/reporter on the Arts Desk of NPR News.