There is an important message delivered here. The question is, is it the one that was intended?
Released in 2016, Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four is an interesting look at how unfounded paranoia can ruin a person’s life. In 1994, four Latina lesbians were accused of gang raping two young children and homophobia seemed to be what eventually put them behind bars. It is a powerful story that the documentary does not do a great job of explaining.
The documentary’s strength is in the four imprisoned women. It begins by introducing the viewer to the women and Director Deborah Esquenazi does an excellent job. Anna Vasquez is featured the most and speaks eloquently and passionately about her situation. She is never accusatory while defending herself. It is amazing to see someone in such an awful situation handle it with such self-respect.
The same is true of the other women. Much like the West Memphis Three, Anna, Kristie Mayhugh, Cassandra Rivera, and Elizabeth Ramirez seemed to live in the wrong city at the wrong time. Throughout their trials, they maintained their innocence and it speaks volumes about the four that they never took any plea. Anna even speaks about how she refused to go to a sex offender program while in prison, leading to loss of privileges and time in isolation.
Esquenazi also does a great job of interviewing seemingly everybody who was involved with the case. Along with the accused, there are interviews with family, lawyers, doctors, in laws, and advocates. Most impressive is that Esquenazi is able to get on camera interviews with one of the accusers and her father.
Unfortunately, Esquenazi seems to think that the story being told is powerful enough to deliver a meaningful message. This leads to the director ignoring what may be important details. For example, the father of the accuser insinuates that incriminating letters turned in by Elizabeth are fake. He also appears to contradict earlier statements he made. Esquenazi seems content to let these questions go unanswered.
This is the biggest fault of the movie. It quickly becomes apparent that there is no physical evidence of any wrongdoing but Southwest of Salem never delivers its message of homophobia. Only one of the women’s mother was upset when she came out as a lesbian and the cases that sent the four to prison were based more on incorrect science than homophobia. (There is also an odd aside about the Satanic Panic that goes nowhere.) There is also talk about how flawed the justice system is, but the actual case as presented by the director seemed to have little to do with sexual orientation.
The documentary also suffers from poor pacing. Points that are brought up are never followed through on. It is implied that Anna is mysteriously paroled, but this is never further investigated. Even the ending just sort of happens in an almost apologetic way.
Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four is an interesting and important story. The documentary does not convey its importance, however. It succeeds at giving the viewer an intimate look at strength in the most difficult of times but it fails to deliver the message it seems more interested in.