“The courtroom is such a stifled atmosphere,” says Innocence Project of Texas lawyer Mike Ware. “You can tell a story in a courtroom and get the message out, but a documentary film is so much more effective and suited for telling the whole story.”
In November 2016, Ware and the Innocence Project succeeded in exonerating the four women who became known as The San Antonio Four, and the independent documentary Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four, released in April 2016, is credited with not only assisting by documenting the recanting of a damning testimony, but also with telling the quartet’s story from the 1990s until the convictions against them began unraveling 15 years later.
The San Antonio Four are Latina lesbians who in 1997 and 1998 were wrongfully convicted of gang-raping two little girls, purportedly as a form of “Satanic-related sexual abuse.” Elizabeth Ramirez, aunt to the then-7- and 9-year-old girls, was sentenced to 37½ years in prison; while Ramirez’ then-partner Anna Vasquez and friends Kristie Mayhugh and Cassandra Rivera were sentenced to 15 years apiece. The accused women were 19 and 20 and have since all spent more than a decade in prison, separated from their families, for crimes they did not commit.
“I think the only reason that the investigation was seriously pursued, why there wasn’t more skepticism about the preposterous allegations in the first place, was because these four women had recently come out as gay, that they were openly gay,” Ware told CNN in a 2016 interview.
Mary B. Martin School of the Arts at East Tennessee State University will present a screening of Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four as part of the South Arts Southern Circuit Tour of Independent Filmmakers on Monday, Oct. 23, at 7 p.m. in ETSU’s Martha Street Culp Auditorium. The screening is free and open to the public and will be followed by a Q&A and reception with filmmaker Deborah Esquenazi and film subject Anna Vasquez.
“The movie doesn’t linger on the women’s trials, but it effectively exposes the raw homophobia that the prosecution exploited relentlessly,” reports Slate. “It also explains how the case fit into the Satanic abuse panic that infected America in the 1980s and ’90s.”
Southwest of Salem packs many issues into one 91-minute piece of cinematography: mythology, homophobia, cultural hysteria, the American justice system, racial prejudice, stigma, stereotypes and the damaging effects of falsified testimony.
“Nobody should have to face this type of agonizing prejudice, and hopefully their journeys were not in vain,” Esquenazi says in Variety. “Their case sits at the precipice of changing attitudes toward gay rights in America – and yet, so much more remains to be done to eradicate homophobia, misogyny and the railroading of innocents at the hands of our justice system.”
To learn more about Esquenazi’s work, visit www.DeborahEsquenazi.com