×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Southwest of Salem’

Reminiscent of the 'Paradise Lost' documentary series, this study of a wrongful conviction indicts hysterical homophobia in San Antonio, Texas.

With:
Anna Vasquez, Elizabeth Ramirez, Cassandra Rivera, Kristie Mayhugh, Mike Ware, Keith Hampton, Jeff Blackburn, Javier Limon, Stephanie Limon, Debbie Nathan, Darrell Otto, Mary Burdette.

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5333812/

The West Memphis Three may be the most famous recent victims of satanic paranoia run amok, but the same year those teenage metalheads were convicted of murder, four women in San Antonio suffered similar wrongful arrests based largely on fears of their devilish homosexuality. Deborah S. Esquenazi’s “Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four” employs straightforward, intimate aesthetics to elicit intense empathy with their fight for freedom. Following a premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, this persuasive documentary appears primed to channel outrage into modest theatrical business.

Esquenazi uses a standard blend of archival news clips, fuzzy home videos and newly recorded interviews (shot over a period of years) to detail the legal railroading experienced by Texas couple Anna Vasquez and Cassandra Rivera, as well as their friends Kristie Mayhugh and Elizabeth Ramirez. Hailing from homes that were alternately supportive (Anna) and intolerant (Cassandra) of their lesbianism, the women were a close-knit group, though their lives — if not their relationships — soon unraveled when, after caring for Elizabeth’s two young nieces, the quartet was accused by the children of gang-raping them.

Such charges would have been catastrophic in any jurisdiction, but in conservative San Antonio, the defendants’ homosexuality was prejudicially portrayed as proof of their guilt — if not borderline demonic. Author Debbie Nathan ascribes this insanity to the era’s fanatical fear of youth-exploiting Satanism, while Esquenazi uses canny on-screen text taken from court transcripts to show how phrases like “cult-type” and “sacrificed on the altar of lust” helped imply that the women were part of a coven of gay witches.

It didn’t matter that there was virtually no physical evidence to support the kids’ claims of ritualistic cruelty (apart from some dubious medical exam results), nor that Elizabeth’s brother-in-law Javier Limon had quite obviously made the entire thing up out of anger at Elizabeth for rejecting his advances (especially in favor of being with another woman). After two separate trials, Elizabeth received 37 years for her supposed crimes, and the other three were punished with decade-plus sentences.

“Southwest of Salem” doesn’t need to strain to provoke indignation, so clearly innocent are its subjects — all of whom, in interviews from prison, unwaveringly proclaim that nothing happened. Despondent over their incarceration and its decimation of their families, relationships and reputations, the women are left to endure their wretched circumstances until, thanks to the efforts of a Canadian researcher who was disgusted by their case, they attract the attention of the Innocence Project of Texas. When Anna, after serving 12 years, is subsequently granted unexpected parole in 2012, their cause takes a turn for the better, and improves further when one of the supposed victims, Stephanie Limon, recants the testimony she gave as a child.

By not delving deeper into certain issues, such as the cause of Anna’s sudden release, “Southwest of Salem” occasionally feels like a work that’s so confident about its main arguments, it thinks it can get away with skimming past seemingly important details. Nonetheless, even when one wishes the director would push some of her interviewees a bit harder — especially in regard to Javier, who gets away with directly lying to the camera — a wealth of VHS recordings and considerable access to the principal players lends the project a compelling comprehensiveness.

Esquenazi’s film is shrewdly edited, enhancing its contentions through excerpts from official documents that highlight the flimsiness of the case against the San Antonio Four, as well as the homophobia propelling it forward. Eventually liberated from confinement, Anna, Cassandra, Elizabeth and Kristie find that the justice system continues to thwart their efforts for exoneration. In doing so, “Southwest of Salem” proves a portrait of individual tragedy, and an indictment of a system willing to let prejudice cloud its judgment — and, also, to avoid admitting its own wrongdoing.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'Southwest of Salem'

Reviewed online, Stamford, Conn., April 20, 2016. (In Tribeca Film Festival — Viewpoints.) Running time: 91 MIN.

Production: A Deborah S. Esquenazi Prods., Sam Tabet Pictures presentation, in association with Motto Pictures, Naked Edge Films. (International sales: Naked Edge Films, New York.) Produced by Sam Tabet. Executive producers, Christopher Clements, Julie Goldman (Motto Pictures); Daniel J. Chalfen, Jim Butterworth (Naked Edge Films).

Crew: Directed by Deborah S. Esquenazi. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Esquenazi; editor, Leah Marino, Liz Perlman; music, Sam Lipman; music supervisor, Sam Lipman; sound (DTS/SDDS/Dolby Digital); supervising sound editor, Marcelo Tesón; re-recording mixer, David Bondelevitch.

With: Anna Vasquez, Elizabeth Ramirez, Cassandra Rivera, Kristie Mayhugh, Mike Ware, Keith Hampton, Jeff Blackburn, Javier Limon, Stephanie Limon, Debbie Nathan, Darrell Otto, Mary Burdette.

More Film

  • Soho House

    Soho House Lands In Downtown Los Angeles

    Warner Music, Spotify and Lyft are poised to welcome a new neighbor to downtown Los Angeles’ Arts District with Soho Warehouse, the third California outpost of the Hollywood-loved members-only club — and the largest North American opening to date. Hot on the heels of the Soho House Hong Kong debut earlier this summer, the private [...]

  • Born to Be Live: 'Easy Rider'

    Born to Be Live: 'Easy Rider' Gets a Concert/Screening Premiere at Radio City

    In a year full of major 50th anniversary commemorations — from Woodstock to the moon landing — why not one for “Easy Rider,” Dennis Hopper’s hippie-biker flick that was released on July 14, 1969? That was the idea when a rep for Peter Fonda, who starred in the film as the laid-back Captain America, reached out [...]

  • Costa Gavras

    Costa-Gavras and Cast on Nationality, Identity, and Cinema

    SAN SEBASTIAN  —  Though he’s been based in Paris since 1955 and came up through the French film industry, director Costa-Gavras has never forgotten his roots. “Those who are born Greek,” said the Peloponnese-born filmmaker at a Saturday press conference,  “stay Greek all their lives.” The once-and-always Greek was not just in San Sebastian to [...]

  • Lorene Scafaria, Jennifer Lopez. Lorene Scafaria,

    'Hustlers' Director Lorene Scafaria: 'We Wanted to Treat It Like a Sports Movie'

    The star-studded cast of “Hustlers” didn’t just become strippers in the empowering female-helmed blockbuster — they also became athletes. When speaking to “The Big Ticket,” Variety and iHeart’s movie podcast, at the Toronto Film Festival earlier this month, “Hustlers” director Lorene Scafaria explained the extreme athleticism required of the movie’s leading actresses, who all had [...]

  • Jonathan Van NessLos Angeles Beautycon, Portrait

    Jonathan Van Ness Reveals HIV Diagnosis, Former Drug Addiction

    “Queer Eye’s” Jonathan Van Ness is getting vulnerable in his new memoir “Over the Top.” In a preview of his book with the New York Times, Van Ness opened up about his early struggles with sex and drug addiction as well as his experience with sexual assault, revealing that he was abused by an older [...]

  • 4127_D022_00003_RC(l-r.) Elizabeth McGovern stars as Lady

    Box Office: 'Downton Abbey' Dominating 'Ad Astra,' 'Rambo' With $31 Million Opening

    “Downton Abbey” is heading for a positively brilliant opening weekend after scoring $13.8 million in domestic ticket sales on Friday. If estimates hold, the feature film version of the popular British television show should take home approximately $31 million come Sunday, marking the biggest opening ever for distributor Focus Features and beating previous record holder [...]

  • Gully Boy to represent India in

    'Gully Boy' to Represent India In Oscars Race

    The Film Federation of India has chosen Zoya Akhtar’s “Gully Boy” as its entry in the Academy Awards’ international feature film category. The picture, a coming of age tale about an aspiring rapper in Mumbai’s Dharavi slum premiered at the Berlin film festival in February before opening to a wave of acclaim at home in [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content