Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four
2016, NR, 91 min. Directed by Deborah Esquenazi.
REVIEWED By Josh Kupecki, Fri., Sept. 16, 2016
At the tail end of the last gasp of the satanic ritual abuse mania that needlessly ruined countless lives, four women in San Antonio were charged with sexually assaulting two young girls over the course of two days. The year is 1994, the city is San Antonio, and the four women accused were all openly gay, which of course means witchcraft was involved. Anna Vasquez, Kristie Mayhugh, Cassandra Rivera, and Elizabeth Ramirez (colloquially known as the San Antonio Four) were tried and sentenced based almost solely on testimony from two children. Ramirez got 37 years, being the aunt of the two girls. The other three got 15 years. I know you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop, so here it is: The crime never happened, the Texas legal system is (spoiler alert) full of homophobic bigots, and truth and justice rarely, if ever, come into play in the courtroom.
It is clear from the start that Deborah Esquenazi’s film couldn’t care less about aesthetics, filming the story’s participants in various roadside diners with ambient background noise and people moving in and out of frame, grainy home video and the sterile environments of prison matched with TV news footage and cell phone cameras. But it becomes a compelling aesthetic of its own, expressing an intimacy with the women and their families that the viewer can’t help but fall into. As the women languish in prison, the Innocence Project of Texas get involved, one of the children (now an adult) recants her testimony, and slowly (so, so slowly), the four women are eventually released from prison. That their fight continues to this day – they are seeking exoneration of the crimes, which would lay the groundwork for a civil suit, which the Texas legal system probably doesn’t want to happen as they would most likely lose millions of dollars – is a travesty. And that is what this film documents: racism, homophobia, misogyny, and exploitation of the working class. God bless Texas.