‘Southwest of Salem’ explores the lives of unjustly convicted ‘San Antonio Four’

Tribeca Film Festival

Deborah Esquenazi’s documentary Southwest of Salem begins with a medium close-up of Anna Vasquez, at the time an incarcerated sex offender. In her 1998 trial, the prosecution claimed Anna was responsible for leading three other women in the gang rape of two girls in San Antonio, Texas. She was offered a plea deal, but she refused it. That offer, Anna says in the opening sequence, required an admission of guilt, and she was not guilty. In Esquenazi’s accomplished debut feature, Anna’s former lover, Cassandra Rivera, and their friends, Elizabeth Ramirez and Kristie Maghugh, convicted along with Anna for the crime, also declare their innocence.

The girls, seven and nine years old, were sisters, and Ramirez’s nieces. The four convicted sex offenders, who became known as the San Antonio Four, are all lesbians. So is Deborah Esquenazi, whose “coming out” coincided with the making of her documentary.

Southwest of Salem, screening at the Tribeca Film Festival, does not chronicle the original trials (Elizabeth’s was separate), nor is there much footage of the appeal brought when it was found that the forensic evidence against the women was flawed. Instead, Esquenazi’s documentary is centered on the lives of her four subjects, and the women they were before their arrests. “We made a decision to go with character because I wanted you to know and love these women,” the filmmaker says, in a telephone interview in New York City. “Anna drives the narrative because she’s released first and she’s incredibly poignant and earnest.”

In the course of the story, several revelations confirm the innocence of the four women. Most convincing is the admission of the prosecution’s forensic witness that the evidence used to determine that the girls were raped is no longer accepted by the scientific community. That fact emerges during an evidentiary hearing made possible under Texas’s recent passage of a “junk science” bill. Esquenazi was able to film it, and dramatic footage of the proceeding appears in the documentary. With the help of a pair of lawyers who head the Innocence Project of Texas, she also tracks down one of Ramirez’s nieces, now a grown woman. “We are doing what the justice system couldn’t do,” Esquenazi says, “which is to tell the truth.” The results of the hearing came after the filmmakers locked picture and were ready to submit Southwest of Salem to the Tribeca Film Festival.

Esquenazi’s title refers to the 17th-century Salem, Massachusetts witch trials in which charges against women were fabricated, and they were demonized. There is little doubt that the cases against the San Antonio Four represent a similar pattern, especially when one considers the nexus of gender, sexual orientation, class and ethnicity (three of the four women are Latinas) that surfaced in the course of their arrest and conviction. Nevertheless, the documentary’s overriding theme is the persistent misogyny evinced in American society. “Fundamentally, homophobia for me is an expression of a hatred of women, of feminized males and the butch woman who is not quite feminine enough,” Esquenazi says. “In the trials, you see the women on the stand, and the defense attorneys have them look more fem!” The filmmaker, who crafts an incredibly intimate portrait of her four subjects, admits that it was her gender that first inspired them to speak with her.

Esquenazi dreamed of being an investigative reporter, and she once interned at The Village Voice. “I am not a very good writer, but I turned out to be a pretty good editor of radio and film,” she says. “Now, I’m an investigative filmmaker.” Southwest of Salem was over two years in the making, not including the 18 months Esquenazi spent in post. Asked if she wanted her audience to be outraged at the injustices committed against the San Antonio Four, or admiring of their moral courage, she replies: “It’s very moving that you say that, because it is exactly the thing we talked about all the time in the editing room.”

Esquenazi recalls a public screening in which Anna answered a question from the audience. “A woman observed that there appeared to be no silver lining in this story, despite the fact that they were let out of jail while the cases against them are under review. Anna told her that it was important to her that everyone be a little bit more brave,” the filmmaker says. “Here we are, sitting in a position of privilege at Tribeca, and Anna tells them they should be a little bit more brave. That was so powerful for me.”

Southwest of Salem opens theatrically on Sept. 16 at Cinema Village in New York City.