Southwest Of Salem: The Story Of The San Antonio Four


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Anna Vasquez in Southwest Of Salem: The Story Of The San Antonio Four
"Esquenazi's approach is cool and focused." | Photo: Deborah S Esquenazi

In 1994, four women - Elizabeth Ramirez, Anna Vasquez, Kristie Mayhugh and Cassandra Rivera - were accused of gang raping two girls, aged seven and nine. The case was deeply flawed. The girls repeatedly contradicted themselves and one another. Their stories, which grew continually more elaborate, incorporated classic storytelling elements which have been found again and again in later-rescinded abuse testimony. Their father had reportedly been rejected by one of the women after years spent trying to seduce her. Scientific evidence was used that was dubious at the time and has been soundly refuted since. But this was San Antonio, and the women were Latina lesbians. Ramirez, pregnant at the time, was sentenced to 37 years, the others to 15.

After the publication of the widely discredited book Michelle Remembers in 1980 and the McMartin preschool trial in 1983, the notion that children were being ritually and Satanically abused became difficult to shift from the American consciousness, no matter how often allegations were disproved. Although no such specific allegations were made in court in this case, it bore many hallmarks of the same phenomenon. The press used words like 'cult' and 'sacrifice', tangling them together with references to the women's sexuality which, though the prosecution repeatedly said that homophobia had no place in the trial, was repeatedly referenced in court. Once the women had been sent to separate prisons (forbidden to contact one another, though two of them had been in a relationship), they had no contact with any outsiders except their family members. Nine years went by before a Canadian researcher heard about the case and decided that it sounded as if something was amiss.

Deborah Esquenazi's documentary, which recently won the Broadcast Film Critics Association's Best First Feature award, tells the women's story from its origins all the way through to the hearing that called into question the validity of the original convictions. It's a story of remarkable solidarity, with not one of them ever speaking against the others in an attempt to get an early release. The women's pain at being separated from their loved ones comes across clearly and colours their reactions when one of their accusers eventually recants. Esquenazi's approach is cool and focused; there's no need to add to the emotion on display here. She builds up her case effectively and it is the US justice system that finds itself on trial. Never pushy in interviews, she gives those responsible for the injustice enough rope to hang themselves.

Bringing together interviews with the main players, court transcripts and archive footage from the time, Southwest Of Salem is detailed and comprehensive but never drags. It's difficult viewing for all the right reasons.

Reviewed on: 24 Nov 2016
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Documentary about a trial that was infused with homophobic prejudice.

Director: Deborah Esquenazi

Year: 2016

Runtime: 91 minutes

Country: US

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