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A tale of hard-won vindication for four Texas women convicted of horrific but difficult-to-believe crimes, Deborah Esquenazi’s Southwest of Salem follows the case of the so-called “San Antonio Four.” Gay Latinas who briefly shared a house together in 1994, they were accused of gang-raping two young girls, the nieces of one of the women. Though the doc’s account is straightforward and would have benefited from more artful storytelling, it will play well on small screens and be particularly welcomed at LBQT-centric venues like Outfest, where it won the Grand Jury award.
Documentary fans will compare the film to many predecessors, including several movies made about the West Memphis Three. In that case, filmmakers could exploit the mysteries surrounding a terrible crime that actually did happen. Here, by contrast, it seems that nothing did: Several months after she babysat her two nieces, aged 7 and 9, for about a week, Elizabeth Ramirez was accused of molesting them. Today, one of the victims says the crimes were a fiction, and the physician who testified about evidence of abuse says she was wrong to believe the accusations.
Ramirez and the three friends who had been her housemates — Kristie Mayhugh, Cassandra Rivera and Anna Vasquez — were eventually convicted and sent to prison, which is where Esquenazi began interviewing them. They do most of the talking, with occasional cutaways to the plentiful videotapes they made of each other in 2000, when it seemed likely a long legal battle would not end in their favor. The four come across as likeable young women who had overcome much (low-paying jobs, rejection by parents) to find their small but supportive community.
Being gay and working-class may be the best explanation for how they wound up convicted of such unthinkable crimes. As Mayhugh remembers it, prosecutors at the trial spoke as though homosexuality and child molestation went hand in hand; the fact that four gay women lived together, in this conservative part of the country, seemed to set the stage for “cult-like activity.”
Journalist Debbie Nathan (an expert on false claims of group child abuse) sheds light on the nationwide paranoia during the ‘80s and ‘90s about “Satanic ritual abuse,” a supposed phenomenon that in reality was extremely rare if not non-existent. But the film does little to dramatize the prosecution or the trial, and only obliquely explains how such accusations could be made in the first place. It suggests that the girls were coached by their father, Ramirez’s former brother-in-law, who had unrequited romantic feelings for her and a habit of making legal claims against those who displeased him.
The girls’ mother, Ramirez’s sister, is barely mentioned in the film. We hear from none of the detectives or prosecutors who put the four women in jail, nor from the physician who was certain the girls had been sodomized but recanted years later in the face of scientific evidence. We do, though, get ample time with lawyers for the Innocence Project, who were instrumental in getting the women released. If it leaves something to be desired at the start of the tale, the procedural details of seeking release and exoneration are well represented.
Distributors: Investigation Discovery, Filmwise
Production company: Sam Tabet Pictures
Director-director of photography: Deborah Esquenazi
Producers: Deborah Esquenazi, Sam Tabet
Executive producers: Jim Butterworth, Daniel J. Chalfen, Julie Goldman
Editors: Leah Marino, Liz Perlman
Composer: Sam Lipman
Not rated, 90 minutes
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