In the documentary Southwest of Salem, director Deborah S. Esquenazi offers us a glimpse into the haunting story of the San Antonio Four.
The four — Latina lesbian women from San Antonio, Texas — were wrongfully convicted of gang-raping two young girls.
“I’ve always wondered where the story that they came up with actually came from,” says Anna Vasquez in the film’s opening scene.
In 1997 and 1998, Vasquez and three other women were convicted after Kafkaesque trials steeped in intolerance — investigators, prosecutors and the media drew on everything from homophobia and the myth of the queer child predator to mass hysteria surrounding witchcraft and satanic abuse.
Before going into the details of the case, Esquenazi introduces us to each of the women. Through interviews and clips from old home videos, we get to know them and learn of their friendships and romances before we find out the details of the accusations levelled against them. It’s one of the film’s great strengths, humanizing and giving voice to women who have been silenced, denigrated and marginalized.
The incarceration of these women is more than a failure of the justice system or the possible result of a personal vendetta — although these are important parts of the story. Instead, Southwest of Salem identifies patterns of hate and fear that led to the targeting of these women.
There is an astonishing failure of science at the heart of the film, which reveals an official and anesthetized narrative constructed around junk science, faulty forensics and superstition masked as fact.
As America was going through a phase of “satanic panic,” the campaign against these women quickly became a modern-day witch trial. The language of cult rituals dominated an already flimsy story concocted, one can’t help but conclude, by a family member with an axe to grind (an allegation denied by the family member).
Southwest of Salem is as emotionally harrowing as it is deeply rewarding. It is a beautiful portrait of four women whose strength carries them through the injustice forced upon them. Blending a true crime aesthetic with intimate access to the daily lives of the women and their families, Esquenazi tells their story with compassion, grace and a palpable anger at a justice system in ruins.
The women have been released from jail and a court overturned their convictions. But they have not been declared innocent, and face a lifetime of being branded as sex offenders unless they can be exonerated.
The Tyee caught up with Esquenazi to talk about Southwest of Salem. Here’s what she had to say.
What was your experience of getting access to the San Antonio Four, and of visiting them in prison?
It was really challenging to get access in prison. Getting into Texas prisons is not the easiest thing, particularly when you’re looking at individuals who are in pretty rough maximum-security prisons. It took me about five to six months to get access.
It was a very emotional experience, because every time I would visit them something big would happen, particularly when I would visit Cassie, who was always struggling, as she reveals in the film, not to get into trouble because of her anger about being in there. They would bring that emotion into the interview. So we’d be sitting behind the camera, just bawling, or just trying to keep it together.
It was a really emotional experience. Now I look back on it as totally necessary and totally just incredible for how much they revealed to me. Don’t forget, there are people watching. They’re telling me these intimate things while there is someone right next to me watching the whole thing. There’s no privacy in prison. There’s no private interviews.
We get to know these women quite well throughout the film. Before we get into the case, we learn who they are, how they all met, what their relationships were. Can you tell me about your choice to frame the film that way?
That was the most challenging and most frustrating part of the editing process. In some ways, the easiest part was to lay out the evidence, because the evidence is so clear.
It’s really hard to get a sense of somebody’s humanity when they’re behind bars, so that was incredibly challenging. I really do credit the women for being able to be that intimate in their interviews. Without that I don’t think we could have done it.
It wasn’t until we got to Tribeca [Film Festival], when a reporter asked the women why they felt like they could be so intimate, that they revealed... that it was because I had come out to them. They said that that helped them feel more comfortable, because they’d been so reviled by the press in early parts of their case. They finally felt like somebody could understand.
Science comes up a lot in the film. You look at junk science and forensics and at unscientific myths around “satanic abuse.” What is the role of science in this story for you?
That’s an excellent question. I could have just done a feature on that tension between science and myth in forensics.
For example, in 2009... the National Academy of Sciences declared, using federal American money, that the forensic system in the United States is totally broken, that it needs a massive overhaul. And there are no codifying or board bodies that are in place to actually oversee the way science is handled.
Forensics really should be called art, not science. It’s all about subjectivity.
I think the issue you bring up is so interesting and so important, and it’s the tension between the primitive, atavistic, satanic worship witch-hunt, and then it’s the other part of it, which is this scary, scientific, buttoned-up perspective. And somehow those two tensions seem to fall apart in this story, and I find that really compelling.
An obsession of mine is the social construction of the way that we perceive crime. Crime is a funny thing. It doesn’t always stand up to rigorous views when you start to look at it intersectionally. Who is the person who’s doing the accusing? But also who is the subject of the accusation? We know that now, because those conversations come up a lot, in a way that they [didn’t] 20 years ago.
In those 20 years, what do you think has changed or has remained the same in the justice system for queer women of colour, or Latina lesbian women specifically?
With something like social media... I would like to believe that if a case like this came up today, there might be a little more suspicion and a little more readiness to talk about those suspicions by advocates or defense attorneys. I like to believe that maybe advocates would have gotten involved.
And there’s this sticky issue that still is tense for queer people, this false notion that queer people are more predisposed to harming children. Totally false, but one which has unfortunately fomented a lot of fear about gay identified individuals, and it’s bled into bathroom laws in the south in America. It does have an impact, it’s just kind of changing its face.
Does anything feel particularly timely for you in this narrative?
Yeah, absolutely! Hysteria is timely. The issue of hysteria is so pertinent.
Yesterday we listened to a person who was using hysteria to try to win a presidency in the United States of America [at the Republican National Convention], so I feel very confident that if there’s anything to walk away with here is what hysteria can do to people and how it influences them to be less critical, because they’re using fear-mongering as a way to drive their decision-making.
Right now I think it’s showing its face not only in the bathroom laws of our transgender brothers and sisters, but I think Islamophobia is also an example of that.
In the last couple of years, we’ve seen things like Serial and Making a Murderer that allow us to revisit possibly dubious convictions. Do you feel like we’re in a moment when a film like yours might do more than document what’s happening?
I’d like to believe that what we can see here is an example of how an art form can actually help do something as large as help free people from prison.
It’s kind of incredible to think how an art and the drive of a team with no resources — I have no power, I have no cultural capital, I don’t have a famous name — that with a little bit of shoe leather journalism and a style we’ve been able to move people to action.
Big things can be done with something as delicate as art.
Have people taken action, been moved to do something about this?
We have an exoneration campaign.
I think if there was any call to action from me it’s that the more we can band together and talk about the case, the more we can show systems of government that togetherness can do a lot more than they want to believe. And we see that. We see that a lot.
If it can happen to these four women, it can happen to anybody who comes from worlds that don’t have privilege and, like I said, don’t have cultural capital. Don’t have power. Don’t have access. Don’t have resources.
I would say that this case, in a way, is more primed for that [than Serial] because it’s so close to having a decision. There’s a decision being made right now, so in a way the impact that it could have could actually be real.
I’m a big fan of Serial too, so I get it, but it’s different, because that’s a whodunnit. Did he do it, did he not? Is he innocent, is he not? We never actually entertained guilt here, because there’s no guilt.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. Southwest of Salem plays Monday, Aug. 15, at 8:45 p.m. at International Village Cinemas (with ASL interpretation), and again Tuesday, Aug. 16, at 7 p.m. at the Vancity Theatre as part of the Vancouver Queer Film Festival. For more information, visit the VQFF website.