Sadly, when I first heard the story of four gay Latina women in 1990s Texas who were wrongfully convicted of the gang rape of two little girls, it was when SOUTHWEST OF SALEM: THE STORY OF THE SAN ANTONIO FOUR debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year--three years after they served 15 years in jail, and as they continue to struggle to fight to reclaim their innocence and piece together what is left of their families. Excuse me for my extremely delayed response, but I am enraged.
This seems to be exactly the reaction director Deborah Esquenazi is hoping for as she encourages audiences to join the exoneration campaign for these women. SOUTHWEST OF SALEM, a documentary told through the eyes of the four women, unfolds like a horrifying nightmare. Esquenazi recounts the events leading up to the women’s incarceration, going as far back as when the women met, became friends, couples and mothers—reinstating their humanity after their names and reputations had become synonymous with satanic rituals, cult behavior, and child molestation, thanks to their intensely conservative home state and media scrutiny. With this film, their identities are less about the stigma of being relentlessly called “perverts” but rather about reclaiming their themselves as Elizabeth Ramirez, Cassandra Rivera, Kristie Mayhugh, and Anna Vasquez--citizens in a country that feebly clings to the slogan of "all people are created equal."
Anna is the first one of the “four” to speak on camera. Esquenazi interviews both her (through the glass of the visitation area in prison) and her mother, fighting to hold back tears the entire time. Anna's friend Liz, the aunt of the two young girls, was forced to leave her own young son--with whom she was pregnant at the time of the accusation--behind when she was sentenced. She tells her story of coming out when she was 18 years old, meeting Cassie, a mother of two from a previous relationship, and together raising her children. Through this narrative, Esquenazi paints their individual portraits that the media and Texas community failed to reveal.
Then we hear Liz's story, in her own words. Arguably the most complicated narrative to tell as it is her two nieces who accuse the "four" of sexually abusing them, and she was also pregnant with their father's (her brother-in-law's) child, folks were ripe to declare a guilty verdict despite Liz's testimony that Javier, her brother-in-law, had been obsessed with her at the time and she was worried about what he might do to her. Liz, pregnant and in a tough predicament, met Kristie (another one of the "four") and they fell in love.
Through home videos, family testimonials, and recorded footage of the trial, news reports, and ultimate homecoming, Esquenazi weaves together a film about four lives that were eagerly halted, distorted, and shamed, women who were removed from society due to Latina hate, lesbian fear, and utter disdain for their "perverted lifestyle." She shows how their lives were held up in front of a society that fought tirelessly to dismantle their humanity, associating them with heinous crimes and satanic imagery because they felt "this is what gay people do."
As most documentary filmmakers who present real-life stories dealing with the justice system and crimes against humanity (which I would consider this to be, as the only criminals here seem to be the rigged justice system and disgusting court of opinion), Esquenazi has her own agenda. Though each of the women have been released from jail, their names remained tarnished with child molestation and satanic charges engraved on their reports as the court still refuses to grant them their innocence. So Esquenazi has teamed with the National Center for Justice, the Innocence Project of Texas, and other criminal experts who are helping to clear their names--a fight vigorously led by the San Antonio Four themselves who have struggled to pick up the pieces of lives destroyed by a system in which they are not welcome.
Through the haunting images of lives torn apart, Esquenazi highlights their intimate personal stories post-prison--particularly with Liz, who reunites with one of her nieces years later after she recants her statement. While it was interesting to know the answer to the "what ever happened to the two little girls?" question, the documentary itself quickly fell off its course at this point--about three quarters into the film. It would have been more compelling to end with a a poignant quote from one of the "four" regarding their innocence. Instead, the conclusion is open-ended, and not just because their fight is ongoing but the choice to pursue the story of the two little girls (which then led to their father's shifting perspective) makes the film drag on needlessly losing its intention (and Esquenazi's obvious agenda).
That said, the story of the San Antonio Four is more imperative than the way the story is ultimately packaged in SOUTHWEST OF SALEM: THE STORY OF THE SAN ANTONIO FOUR. Without the sloppy presentation of the confounding facts at the end of the film, it would have been a more impactful film. But what it does succeed at is bringing attention to a case that should never really be forgotten.
Rating: B- (*** out of *****)