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Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four

By James Ambroff-Tahan

Documentary filmmaker, radio producer, and journalist Deborah S. Esquenazi has produced several short documentaries in which justice and identity play prominent roles. In her first feature documentary, Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four—a centerpiece film at this June’s Frameline, the San Francisco International LGBTQ Film Festival—those themes are again central issues. But behind the scenes, they have been matters of more personal importance for Esquenazi, who, as a result of making the film, has come to publicly acknowledge her own identity.

Filmmaker and journalist Deborah S. Esquenazi

Filmmaker Deborah S. Esquenazi

With her films, Deborah S. Esquenazi has built a reputation for addressing how race, gender identity, economic status, mythology, and geography have been factors in determining whether justice is served in the United States.

Her journey toward becoming a filmmaker began in 2006, when she became an intern and paid researcher at the Village Voice in New York City. A job as a research associate for a private investigator followed, a position that helped pay the bills and hone Esquenazi’s investigative skills; however, she did not find it creatively fulfilling.

“Part of the challenge is that I wasn’t able to tell my own story, and I felt that I was losing as someone who was interested in intersectional themes of race, gender, and economics,” Esquenazi now says. “Around the same time, I was really getting interested in radio, and what I really like about radio and film is the ability to record people’s voices, record them telling their story. So I went to school in 2008 and took a radio production class, and I was shockingly good at it, whereas when I was a writer and journalist, I found that I was having a tough time finding my voice. What radio and film were doing for me was that I was able to hear people’s voices, and then I was filling the space with whatever creativity I had…. What I was doing as a radio person translated so well for me, in terms of film.”

A FILMMAKER’S MISSION

Equenazi’s viewing of the French film Murder on a Sunday Morning, which won the 2002 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and was about a defense team building a case for the innocence of a black teen in Florida who was wrongly accused of murder, was a critical moment in her turn toward filmmaking in 2008. It was also a film whose publicist would ultimately join Esquenazi to produce and promote her first feature documentary.

Deborah S. Esquenazi’s new documentary Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four excavates the nightmarish persecution of (left to right) Elizabeth Ramirez, Kristie Mayhugh, Anna Vasquez, and Cassandra Rivera—four lesbians wrongfully convicted of raping two little girls in San Antonio, Texas, in 1994. In February 2016, a judge recommended that their convictions be vacated.

“The anguish I had from watching Murder on a Sunday Morning was the kind of thing that I was missing from radio,” Esquenazi says. “I was missing the part where when you are watching, you are agonizing over the injustice of it, and I feel like I started to learn that as a filmmaker. I started to grasp that moment of when you are watching something, you want to cry—and to help other people.”

A class in film editing and production followed in early 2009. “That was enough to get me started, and at the same time, because I know that the language of the artistry has to be as important as the anguish you are going to experience, I spent a lot of time teaching myself Photoshop and InDesign, which were very important to the visualization of the scenes that I would be working on,” Esquenazi recounts.

By 2010, Esquenazi had hit her stride as a filmmaker and was making short documentaries, a process that for her typically involves doing a lot of research, conducting interviews, taking photographs, and then organizing those elements in an effective way. “I start shooting a lot of photos, and I start planning the design of what this is going to look like, so I take the files into After Effects,” she explains. “So at the same time that I am doing research on the themes we’re going to cover, I also do the visuals and design of what this is going to look like. That is all complete by the time we start shooting the film.”

STORIES THAT MUST BE TOLD

It was also in 2010 that Debbie Nathan, a mentor and colleague from Esquenazi’s days as a journalist—who had written a book about hysteria over alleged satanic ritual-driven sexual molestation cases in the 1980s and 1990s, a hysteria largely fueled by now-debunked “junk science”—brought a haunting tape to her attention. The tape chronicled the stories of the San Antonio Four, four Latina lesbians falsely accused in 1994 of having sexually abused two young girls. The women were subsequently convicted, in a case that, today, legal experts and journalists agree was irredeemably marred by homophobia, false evidence, and coercion. (The women were sentenced from 15 to 37 years, but all four have been out on appeal since 2013, after one of the now-adult accusers recanted her story in 2012.)

The documentary Southwest of Salem combines home movies, intimate interviews from prison, expert commentary, and exhaustive investigation, to shed light on how the lives of four women have been devastated by a miscarriage of justice.

Nathan encouraged Esquenazi to make a film about the case and sent her documents from the trial that made it clear to Esquenazi that the charges against the women were highly questionable. She initially resisted Nathan’s suggestion to make a film, partly because she was reluctant to acknowledge her own identity as a lesbian, and partly because she was not sure she was up to dealing with the touchy subject of child abuse. But she ultimately relented.

“I can clearly remember watching the VHS tape, and the crescendo for me was when someone in the film, as the women are being taken away to prison, repeatedly says, ‘We know you’re innocent,’ and I just lost it. Suddenly, I had this crushing material in my hands and realized, ‘This is bigger than I thought.’ Finally, I went to see the women in prison to interview them, and I felt almost morally implicated if I didn’t do something.”

Once Esquenazi decided to make the film, producing it unfolded as a meticulous labor of sifting through the sizable cache of transcripts from the trial and selecting compelling passages that would have to be visualized, a task that film co-editor Liz Perlman handled.

“Because this story is so complicated and spans over 20 years, we needed to incorporate additional visual elements to help clarify certain details,” Perlman says. We had barely any archival footage from two trials, but thankfully had access to hundreds of pages of trial transcripts that were edited down using Photoshop and After Effects.”

Perlman goes on to explain how important the trial documents were in describing the homophobia and prejudice that were so present in the two trials. “I was able to crop out certain parts of a document in Photoshop and then use basic animating techniques in After Effects to highlight harrowing words such as sacrificial lamb, she says. “Whenever the lawyers referred to complicated legal jargon regarding junk science, we referred back to documents to add clarification and move the narrative forward. For example, when defense attorneys Keith Hampton and Mike Ware are fighting for their case and trying to convince [prosecution expert witness] Dr. Nancy Kellogg to sign an affidavit letter in the film, we cut to documents highlighting her findings, which we discovered were incorrect years later.”   

During the “Satanic ritual abuse panic” of the 1980 and 1990s, cult activity and homosexuality were sometimes linked as interconnected “evils.” At the tail end of this era came the shocking case of four Latina women accused of a heinous sexual assault against two young girls. Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four is an account of the nightmare that unfolded for these women and an investigation into serious flaws with their trials. (Click on the image to watch the trailer.)

The moral imperative of making a feature documentary about the San Antonio Four and the miscarriage of justice and discrimination they endured helped unleash Esquenazi’s pent up feelings about herself and aversion to talk about them.

“I actually remember a soulful moment when one of my executive producers asked me why I needed to direct this film,” Esquenazi says. “And I remember saying that it was because I needed to deal with my own fear of coming out as a lesbian.”

Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four will be featured at the 40th annual Frameline, the San Francisco International LGBTQ Film Festival. It will be screened on June 20 and June 23, 2016