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.