I’ve always been fascinated by the “Satanic Panic” of the 80s and 90s. The cultural phenomenon, in which seemingly credible professionals posited that bloodthirsty Satanists were molesting children and involving them in occult rituals, is strangely irresistible to horror fans, drawn as we are to ghoulish imagery and scenarios. But as fictional as these urban legends were, they had an all too real and terrible price for countless men and women accused and imprisoned for bizarre crimes that never occurred. Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four is an outstanding examination of just such an instance.
The film tells the story of four lesbians: couple Anna Vasquez and Elizabeth Ramirez, who were raising Ramirez’s children together, and their friends Kirstie Mayhugh and Cassandra Rivera. In 1994, the close knit group’s happy existence was shattered when Ramirez’s two nieces apparently accused the women of sexually abusing them and all four ultimately found themselves in jail serving lengthy sentences.
Interviewed in prison, the women tell their firsthand stories, with particular focus on Anna. We feel like we truly get to know them and empathize with their plight. Home videos paint a vivid picture of their existences before prison, which is one of the tools director Deborah Esquenazi uses to elevate Southwest of Salem beyond the realm of talking heads. The film effectively summarizes the cultural and judicial forces that contributed to the women’s conviction without coming off as “talky” or overly pedantic. Esquenazi also stuck with her subjects long enough for some dramatic and involving narrative developments to occur.
Southwest of Salem is an important film because of its subjects: women desperately struggling for justice as well as the homophobia and cultural hysteria that have cost them years of freedom. It’s also so thoroughly engrossing and gripping that audiences will find it rewarding purely on a storytelling level.
Queerness: 5—the film is about real-life queer women.
Quality: 5—A powerful, Oscar-worthy documentary.
Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four is now playing at Cinema Village, 22 E 12th St, cinemavillage.com.
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