Hot Docs ’16: Taking viewers “Southwest of Salem”

Southwest of Salem: The San Antonio Four (pictured) director Deborah S. Esquenazi talks to realscreen about gaining access to the four accused subjects, finding creative solutions for working with a small team, and her approach to funding the doc.
May 3, 2016

In the summer of 1994 and at the height of what was then called “the Satanic panic”, four lesbian women in San Antonio, Texas were wrongfully accused and convicted of sexually assaulting two girls, aged seven and nine.

As reports on the case spread throughout the media detailing the physical and sexual abuse in the context of occult rituals suffered by the under-aged girls, the four women – Anna Vasquez, Cassandra Rivera, Kristie Mayhugh and the girls’ aunt Elizabeth Ramirez – maintained their innocence.

Though prosecutors lacked hard and conventional evidence against the women, all four were subsequently convicted and sentenced to prison. The charges against three of the women would see them spend the next 15 years behind bars, while Ramirez – four months pregnant when accused - would be handed a sentence of 37 years and six months for her role as ringleader in the gang rape.


Southwest of Salem: The San Antonio Four director Deborah S. Esquenazi

In Deborah S. Esquenazi‘s (pictured, left) feature-length debut Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four – which has its international premiere at Hot Docs on Wednesday night (May 4) – the Texas-based director blends the women’s home video footage prior to incarceration with recent vérité footage and exclusive interviews to explore each woman’s personal narrative and their search for exculpatory evidence to help in their criminal trials.

While the film investigates the role of homophobia and mythology in the women’s trials, it also captures one of the accusers – now 25 years old – recanting her testimony and coming to terms with what she regards as a process of being manipulated into falsifying testimony 15 years earlier.

Wednesday’s screening, meanwhile, will feature a Skype Q&A with the San Antonio Four, who have each been released and have had their convictions vacated, but are still waiting to have their appeal for full legal exoneration heard. Also taking part will be Esquenazi, producer Sam Tabet and Innocence Project of Texas director Mike Ware. The women, who were cleared by the State of Texas to travel to Toronto, were, according to Esquenazi, denied entry by the Canadian Border Services Agency.

“It was really disappointing to be honest,” says the director. “They can’t travel because they haven’t been exonerated, which is why exoneration is such a big deal.”

Ahead of Wednesday’s screening, the Southwest of Salem director talked to realscreen about gaining access to the accused, finding creative solutions when working with a small team, and her approach to funding.

How were you able to gain such intimate access to the women and was it difficult gaining their trust?

One of the things that actually helped was that I was in the process of coming out and I actually came out to the women before I came out to my family. I was able to gain trust because I think they could tell that I really cared about their case. I just tried to be really present with them, and was always really persistent with them – it’s not like I came in and I was suddenly gone. I would write them letters and keep up with the relationship just like any friendship.


Southwest of Salem: The San Antonio Four

Southwest of Salem is similar to Serial and HBO’s The Jinx in that it featured new evidence in the case. The difference is that you allowed news crews access to the recantation footage before completing production on the film. What was the decision behind that?

It was a really hard decision and one in which I really toiled over. It was typical… to withhold those surprises for the end product. But I’m an indie filmmaker, I don’t have a lot of power and there were all these things looping through my head like, ‘What if I never have the funding to finish it?’

The biggest thing was that I felt morally implicated in the story [because] I had this precious information, which ultimately may not help legally, but certainly could help create buzz about a story. [The recantation footage] became the reason to bring it back into the news – there was something new.

Is it fair to say that it was the moral implication rather than the potential interest in funding that made you release the footage?

Absolutely, yes. I got funding after the recantation when I submitted that [footage] as a new grant submission to Sundance – they were my first funder who believed in the film, even though they rejected me the first time. They had written me a letter, which I knew had weight because they don’t send you a letter unless they mean it, but it said, ‘Please reapply’ and so I did. The more footage I was gathering, the stronger the story was becoming. Part of any great doc is a series of conflicts, and the footage to me represented a new twist and a new conflict – it’s something that triggers a reason for the film to exist in the first place.

So the recantation footage helped bring more funders on board the project?

I think it helped, it certainly didn’t hurt – it absolutely helped to be collecting more material. My first two funders were Sundance and then Chicken & Egg, which was huge because I got a lot of rejections along the way.

What were some of the production challenges you encountered throughout the project?

Occasionally I had my wife working sound – she is not a filmmaker but I would tell her to push this button and point that microphone. Sometimes I would grab friends because I needed somebody to come with me and run sound, but most of the time it was just me.

I did distribute cameras and recorders to some of the family members [of the incarcerated]. Some of the most beautiful moments in the film are recorded by the family because I didn’t want to be there when the families were reuniting. I found the value in finding creative solutions [when] not being a big team.

Did you try to get additional courtroom or archival footage from the time of the trials, or did you know you were going to primarily be using interviews with the women in the present day?

I definitely tried to get archive – there was nothing. News bureaus around that time, as I understand it, had reused a lot of their Beta tapes, or recorded over trial footage. Truthfully though, I knew I wanted to tell the story from the perspective of the four women and there was 20 years to tell it. In the end, the intimacy of their own home video became so much more potent than I think archival material would have been anyway.

Have you been in talks with distribution houses since the world premiere at Tribeca?

Yes, I have a sales team led by Submarine and Preferred Content. Southwest of Salem is their first collaboration, so that is really neat because they’re two powerhouse sales teams and there’s definitely a plan to release it widely. In terms of if we have a deal right now, we do not, but it’s definitely in the works because I’m hearing something is brewing.

  • This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
  • Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four premieres at Hot Docs May 4 at 6:30 p.m. EST at Toronto’s Bloor Hot Docs Cinema. Visit the festival’s website for complete screening info.
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