The recent overturning of Brendan Dassey's (Netflix's Making A Murderer ) murder conviction is especially timely as Deborah Esquenazi's award-winning doc Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four (Motto/Naked Edge) makes the rounds at film festivals. Spanning a period of more than 20 years, the film touches on several hot button issues, with homophobia being at the top of the list.
Based in San Antonio, Texas, Anna, her girlfriend Cassie, Kristie and her sometime girlfriend Liz, are wrongfully accused of sexually molesting Liz's young nieces Stephanie and Vanessa while babysitting them for a week. Where did the story the girls came up with come from? There are several possibilities, including outside influence from their father Javier, the ex-husband of Liz's Rosemary, and his mother Serafina. Javier, who had been rebuffed by Liz, might have been motivated by revenge. Also, at the time of the supposed assault, the country was "convulsed" with the idea that there was an international satanic cult infiltrating day care centers and preschools in order to sexually abuse children and destroy their minds, which took hold in the early 1980s.
Combining video recordings from 2000, at the time that Anna, Cassie, Kristie and Liz began their incarceration, as well as footage from as recent as February 2016, Southwest of Salem effectively illustrates what life is like for some Latina lesbians in conservative regions of Texas. For example, Anna's mother Maria observes that Anna and Cassie "were totally devoted to each other, like a husband and wife," while Cassie's mother wasn't happy about the relationship and resorted to calling her daughter names.
The doc follows the trajectory of the gang-rape allegations made against the four women, the arrests, the unfortunate experiences with attorneys, homophobic jurors, the children's testimonies, the inconsistencies and accusations without concrete evidence, and ultimately the lengthy sentences that were handed down (Liz received 37.5 years and the other three women received 15 years apiece). By the time they reached out to the LGBT community (Maria, for example, spoke at a Pride rally), it was too late and they were destined to serve their sentences.
Everything changed for the four when Canadian research scientist Darrell Otto came across their story online and began to visit them every year while researching the case. Otto, who truly believed in their innocence, was joined by The Innocence Project of Texas in Lubbock, to work on having their conviction overturned. When Liz's niece Stephanie, now a mother herself, recants her testimony, there is an unexpectedly bright light at the end of what was a very dark tunnel. What follows is the slow and agonizing process of each woman's release, the exoneration hearings, the complicated results and the ongoing appeals. A powerful portrait of a troubled legal system and the effects of unending homophobia, Southwest of Salem, which recalls the Salem witch trials, is recommended viewing. [Sept. 28, 7:15 p.m., Landmark's Century Cinema.]