In 1994, four women were convicted of the sexual assault of two girls, a trial that was given little coverage in the media even as the "San Antonio Four" were speaking out against their deeply unfair circumstances. The rigidly conservative community turned on the women, despite a lack of concrete evidence, charging them with bogus claims of witchcraft. There was little they could do to shorten their sentences, which reached up to 37 years.
Director Deborah S. Esquenazi adeptly handles the delivery of exposition while keeping the film's narrative momentum rolling, jumping back and forth in time at key points to deliver surprising turns. The heart of the film is in the deeply emotional testimonies of the women and their struggles with the American justice system, and Esquenazi makes the smart choice of focusing the story on one of the women, Anna Vasquez, who provides some of the strongest arguments for how homophobia is deeply rooted in small communities, tearing families and relationships apart.
Southwest of Salem is excellently edited, assembling photographs, hours of home video and countless documents, exposing the lies that sent these women to prison. It moves from a compelling expository documentary into a present-day legal battle in the second half when a Canadian researcher picks up their case, eventually leading to some surprising developments in their story. By the time the film reaches the present day, Esquenazi has the audience hooked, and the conclusion is certain to inspire many to take action.
This is a great documentary, full of emotionally honest and moving stories of injustice, with real-world stakes that are still being felt today. Southwest of Salem is essential viewing for anyone who questions those in power, and is one of this year's best documentaries.