USA 2016, 1h 31min.
Early on in Deborah Esquenazi’s documentary Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four, a montage occurs that has the sudden power to knock the wind out of the viewer. Even those hardened by the glut of non-fiction true crime currently permeating television and the big screen.
In the late 1990’s, four Latina lesbians were wrongfully convicted of sexually assaulting two little girls in San Antonio, Texas. Caught up in the hysterical belief that satanic abuse of children was rampant, coupled with an unhealthy dose of local homophobia, four women, Elizabeth Ramirez, Cassandra Rivera, Kristie Mayhugh and Anna Vasquez, were convicted and given lengthy prison sentences. Ramirez, the aunt of the supposed victims, was sentenced to thirty seven and a half years. As the film unfolds, the circumstances seem so unjust, the evidence so flimsy, that it seems likely that the women will be exonerated early into the proceedings. Then comes the near silent montage. For a moment, it seems that we are watching recently shot material. A title comes up at the bottom right of the screen that reads the year 2000. In less than thirty seconds, ten years pass and the four women, hair greying, hopes diminishing, begin to change before our very eyes. Ramirez is incarcerated so long that she becomes a grandmother. Southwest of Salem, a reference to the witch hunts of the Middle Ages, is an often riveting, sometimes heartbreaking recount of four women whose lives are destroyed in the grinding gears of Texas’ shaky criminal justice system.
Esquenazi makes an effective case for her subject’s innocence, mostly by a methodical presentation of the evidence along with an all-too-brief glance at the hysteria that led to the equation of homosexuality with satanic crimes directed towards children. Esquenazi’s main strength is her near obsessive effort to help free the San Antonio four while attempting to comprehend the series of circumstances that led to their imprisonment. At the circumstantial center, is the embittered Javier Limon, whose inability to gain the love of his underage sister-in-law, Ramirez, eventually led him to press charges against her and the others. All seemed lost until the case caught the attention of Canadian researcher Darrell Otto. Reading the case history hundreds of miles away in the Yukon, he immediately realised that the San Antonio Four met none of the criteria he knew about female sex offenders. Otto proceeded to write a letter to Ramirez in prison, her first contact outside of her family in nine years. But, when Farrell asks Ramirez to relate the details of the crime, she can only respond that it is impossible as there was no crime to begin with. Following Farrell’s involvment, the case eventually made its way to the Texas Innocence Project, a group of legal experts working non-profit to overturn wrongful convictions.
The Texas-born Esquenazi began work on the project shortly after. Early on, the filmmaker was fortunate to capture, on camera, Stephanie Limon, one of the supposed victims, recanting her childhood testimony. As the predicament of the jailed women begins to gain media coverage, one of the four, Anna Vasquez, is paroled with two years remaining on her sentence.
Owing to the close bond she has formed with the women, Esquenazi steps away from the main story to intimately capture the engrossing, day-to-day details of Vasquez’s release: Binge watching episodes of TV prison drama Orange is the New Black, and, as a convicted sex offender, carefully navigating her local supermarket aisles to avoid children. Esquenazi seems to have gambled all on filming the 2015 hearing that could have provided complete exoneration for the paroled San Antonio Four. But, the labyrinthine Texas judicial system had other plans. Ironically, the very same judge who had presided over the railroading of the women a decade and a half earlier seems almost personally offended that the discredited satanic junk science had a hand in their conviction. Before the credits roll, it seems that the San Antonio Four could have been up for an entirely new trial despite the reversal of Stephanie Limon. Fortunately, November 2016, six months after the film’s Tribeca premiere, the women were officially vindicated (the attendant publicity generated by it was even referenced in the courts’ decision). Still, one is left to ponder the numerous other cases where the wrongly accused are not fortunate enough to have an activist like Deborah Esquenazi documenting their plight.
Almost thirty years since that Citizen Kane of true crime documentaries, The Thin Blue Line, was first released, resulting in the acquittal of its subject, another Texas felon, death row inmate Randall Dale Adams. The Netflix series Making a Murderer, HBO’s The Jinx and the Serial podcast continue this non-fiction tradition while garnering high ratings and courting considerable controversy. The outcome of the quietly potent Southwest of Salem makes Esquenazi’s unremitting effort more essential than ever.