Growing up in San Antonio you witness a lot of things like gang violence, racial and class divides, and the occasional public drunkeness, but twenty two years ago something happened in my small town that changed it forever. It may not have gotten the same amount of press as higher profile cases like the Central Park Five but the case of the San Antonio Four was far more devastating.
Trying its best to wrangle the entirety of the tumultuous case, Southwest of Salem doesn’t always manage the film’s execution. Instead it focuses on what’s really the heart of the case, the four women themselves, and goes on to be an emotionally stirring feature.
Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four
Director: Deborah Esquenazi
Release Date: April 20, 2016 (limited)
In 1994, four women, Anna Vasquez, Elizabeth Ramirez, Cassandra Rivera, and Kristie Mayhugh, were charged with the sexual assault of two underage girls, Elizabeth’s nieces. And thus began a weird trial where the four defendants had to deal with a litany of accusations all stemming from their sexuality. With accusations ranging from the deplorable to the highly nonsensical (such as suggesting the crime committed was some sort of satanistic ritual), the four women just want to clear their names and be freed from the system that condemned their lifestyles.
Thanks to the seemingly never ending nature of the trial, the four women are still contesting their convictions to this day and with the latest development happening only two months prior to the film’s release. Unfortunately, with that big of a period to cover, Southwest of Salem fails to catch everything. As the case is constantly developing, we never quite get the full picture of it. Instead the film feels like an attempt at advocacy rather than a full fledged documentary. We’re only told one side of the case, and it’s clear what the filmmaker believes. But we’re not given enough information to make a decision ourselves, and are instead told to believe what director Esquenazi believes. In the same breath, Southwest excels at telling that single side.
Since we’re not given enough information on the case (Neither members of the prosecution nor expert testimony on the “bogus science” scrutinzed later on in the case were interviewed), director Esquenazi chooses to anchor the documentary with emotion. Following the four women on different stages of their incarceration and later release, Southwest benefits from having credible and highly personal footage for each of the women. Opting to capture a slice of each woman (namely Anna Vasquez, who’s become the “face” of the four)’s life, the film creates a connection between the audience and subjects. Some of the footage is incredibly heartbreaking as the film manages to capture integral moments like their initial release from prison or home movies depicting the women’s final moments of freedom. Southwest of Salem makes sure you care about the San Antonio Four. As the film’s main goal is awareness, most of the film is dedicated to moments like these. And because of that laser focus, the film’s emotion and heartache feels earned rather than manipulative.
Regardless of how you feel about the technical flaws of this documentary, Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four is a heartbreaking look into a little discussed case. Some of the developments are baffling. You’ll feel rage, sadness, and hopelessness, and you’ll still only feel a fraction of what these four women are going through. But for even capturing even a fraction of that feeling, Southwest of Salem is powerful, flaws and all.