Anna Vasques asks herself in the film, “I always was wondering where did this story come from”? The story, if you allow me to explain, begins when an ordinary week of September 1994 brings four young, full of life Texas women, Elizabeth Ramirez (19) and three of her friends, Anna Vasquez (19), Cassandra Rivera (19) and Kristie Mayhugh (21) to prison for sexual assault. Despite having no heavy evidence against the four women, they were doomed to end up in the prison for one guilt they had before the criminal justice system and the family of Elizabeth Ramirez – for being a lesbian.
When in February of 2016 I interviewed Kirk Bloodsworth, the first American on death row exonerated by DNA, I sincerely hoped that the criminal justice system has finally learnt from their past mistakes and will try its best not to sent innocent people to prison again. But after seeing Southwest of Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four, I realized that this world has a strange and very dangerous disease that not even a hundred shots of penicillin, tylenol or advil can ever cure it. Yes, we’re in big trouble. Because it appears that it’s very simple to accuse someone of anything we want if the gaps of the criminal justice system allow us.
Before you start watching Deborah S. Esquenazi’s film, you will have to prepare yourself emotionally. Because, what you’re about to see is not a fiction story, but the story of four women who were convicted of gang-raping two little girls during the Satanic Panic witchhunt era of 1980s and 90s. However, that can’t be used an excuse, when a completely made up story was able to pass through the court and convince the jurors in facts and details that actually never occurred.
That happens many, many years later, when one of the little girls, already grown up and having her own kids confesses that she has no memory of the rape whatsoever. The nightmarish prosecution of four Latina women made them face homophobia and the prosecutorial fervor that deserves another 10000 words to be written about, if not more. Moreover, it’s outrageous to see how the system fails when the conviction happens based on the so-called debunked scientific evidence.
As you watch the constant interviews and home made footages throughout the film, you will be still amazed and left speechless each time when our heroines are sharing their truly incredible stories. As I am trying not to give much away from the film, the reason why four women got convicted, I insist if you’re in Toronto to watch the film during the LGBT Film Festival, and find the shocking facts that will make you feel endlessly angry. Once it happens to you, nobody can really blame you for that.
Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four is truly an outstanding documentary film with great music, well narrated story, and the structure that this film uses. Each part of the film has its own way of telling the story. However, as the story unfolds, you fill find yourself disconnected from the real world while you try to grasp as many facts as you can from the film. But even if you succeed at that, one thing nobody can change – is to return lost years of the women who were locked in the prison for not sharing the same style many ‘ordinary’ people have.