Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four: Devil’s Knot, by David Bax
It was only a few seconds into Deborah Esquenazi’s Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four, listening to a woman who had spent more than fifteen years in prison because her homosexuality made her an easy target for the dull and vicious, that I knew this movie was going to make me angry. That’s precisely what it’s meant to do, of course, and it’s a burning success. Esquenazi’s film is a triumph of righteous advocacy, both tender and galvanizing. It’s a vital work of compassionate outrage.
In San Antonio in the mid-1990s, four women—all Latina, all lesbians, some friends, some dating—were accused of a coordinated, ritualized sexual assault of two young girls, the nieces of one of the women. There was a lack of evidence but there was also a lack of common sense and understanding on the part of the authorities and the community, who were quick to convict the women based on inconsistent stories from the accusers and their families, outlandish assertions about the common practices of lesbians and a low rent defense. The women were all sent to prison.
In depicting the investigation (such as it was) and the trial, Southwest of Salem covers ground we’ve seen in documentaries like The Central Park Five and in fiction series like The Wire and the recent The Night Of, in which cops are incentivized not to solve cases but merely to close them as quickly as possible. If it takes cutting corners and relying on the prejudices and indifferences the public and its institutions display toward minorities, so be it. Esquenazi brings us a new take on this bitterly familiar tale, though, with her unwilling heroines being out lesbians in a deeply conservative part of the country twenty years before our present day, where that’s still not always a safe thing to be.
Southwest of Salem is comprised largely of new footage, much of it interviews with the women in question and those who have rallied to their cause. In addition, though, there is also a bevy of home video footage, shot by the women and their friends around the time of the supposed incident. The outdated, consumer-grade, mini-DV look of these bits, compared with the high definition footage shot by Esquenazi, is a stark and sobering signifier of the chasm of time that has passed and just how long it’s been since these four people have lived free.
In a gobsmackingly similar turn of events to the famous case of the “West Memphis Three,” the narrative used to convict the San Antonio Four—both in the court of public opinion and the actual one—included panic-stricken accusations of satanic cult rituals. It’s befuddling to the point of outrage that our contemporary Americans, with straight faces, ruined people’s lives on the basis of something that should have aged out of the public consciousness centuries ago. If it weren’t all so awful, it would be laughable.
There is good news, if not relief, at the end of Southwest of Salem. The San Antonio Four are currently out of prison on appeal, their new law team having made a compelling argument about the unfairness of the original trial. The women aren’t out of the woods yet, though. A new trial could send them back to finish their sentences if the intransigent and indifferent justice system can’t be forced to undo its mistakes. See this movie not just for its astonishing story but as inspiration to find a way to help these people and the legion of misunderstood, unfairly judged outsiders just like them.