Southwest Of Salem: The Story Of The San Antonio Four
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.