It’s frightening to think that the events that are depicted in the documentary film, Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four happened at all, never mind as recently as in the 1990s. The film is a damning look at the trial and convictions of the San Antonio Four, a group of low-income homosexual Latina women who were accused of gang rape. The story is ultimately an important one about homophobia, prejudice and a miscarriage of justice.
In 1994 a pregnant Elizabeth Ramirez cared for her two nieces for one week at her apartment. The girls were Stephanie and Vanessa Limon and they were aged just seven and nine years old. The pair were looked after by their aunt and their aunt’s friends: Kristie Mayhugh, Anna Vasquez and Cassandra Rivera. Vasquez and Rivera were in a committed relationship and had been parenting the latter’s two children for some time.
The two Limon girls made allegations of rape against the four adult women. It was a rough time in America where homophobia was rife and the public were fascinated by stories of satanic worship, witchcraft and abuse. In some cases allegations of abuse were made against homosexuals and this film has some brief scenes about two other individuals who were charged with abuse around this same time and seems to indicate that they were charged for a large part because of their sexual orientation. After the bizarre trial of the San Antonio Four, Ramirez was sentenced to an eye-watering 37.5 years for multiple convictions while her friends received 15 years in prison for sexual assault and 10 years for indecency.
This film is a little like the Making A Murderer series in that it attempts to look at the lives of these four women before the alleged crime as well as the case and sentencing. The Netflix series is by far a more comprehensive and better organised one, but it is important to note that the 90 minutes here constitute the debut feature documentary by director and broadcaster, Deborah Esquenazi. What Southwest of Salem does do well is focusing on the heart-wrenching ramifications of the events (as two of the women were separated from their biological children and all of them from their families) and it allows the group to tell their story and maintain their innocence through candid interviews. In spite of being informative and providing some background, it does leave some questions unanswered.
The women were subsequently released (Vasquez in 2012 and the remaining three in 2013) after over a decade in prison. They were released after one of the alleged victims, Stephanie Martinez (née Limon) recanted her testimony. There was also new evidence from one of the expert witnesses Dr. Nancy Kellogg who admitted that advances in medical science had rendered her previous statements as false. The women were free but their rights are still curtailed and they are seeking exoneration. Their case is currently in the hands of the Texas Court of Appeals.
Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four is a powerful documentary about a system that failed a marginalised group of four women. It’s a story that is demanding of your attention, particularly as it seemed to have alluded much of the media’s attention for some time. This film is ultimately a very emotional and visceral one where you will be angry about the past but hopeful about the future…
Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four screens on 23 September 2016 as part of the 4th annual Queer Screen Film Fest in Sydney. For more information and tickets please click HERE.