JOHNSON CITY (Oct. 11, 2017) – “The courtroom is such a stifled atmosphere,” says Innocence Project of Texas lawyer Mike Ware. “You can tell a story in a courtroom and get the message out, but a documentary film is so much more effective and suited for telling the whole story.”
In November 2016, Ware and the Innocence Project succeeded in exonerating the four women who became known as The San Antonio Four, and the independent documentary “Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four,” released in April 2016, is credited with not only assisting by documenting the recanting of a damning testimony, but also with telling the quartet’s story from the 1990s until the convictions against them began unraveling 15 years later.
The Mary B. Martin School of the Arts at East Tennessee State University will present a free public screening of “Southwest of Salem” as part of the South Arts Southern Circuit Tour of Independent Filmmakers on Monday, Oct. 23, at 7 p.m. in the D.P. Culp University Center’s Martha Street Culp Auditorium.
The San Antonio Four are Latina lesbians who in 1997 and 1998 were wrongfully convicted of gang-raping two little girls, purportedly as a form of “Satanic-related sexual abuse.” Elizabeth Ramirez, aunt to the then-7- and 9-year-old girls, was sentenced to 37-and-a-half years in prison; while Ramirez’ then-partner Anna Vasquez and friends Kristie Mayhugh andCassandra Rivera were each sentenced to 15 years. The accused women were 19 and 20 and have since all spent more than a decade in prison, separated from their families, for crimes they did not commit.
“I think the only reason that the investigation was seriously pursued, why there wasn't more skepticism about the preposterous allegations in the first place, was because these four women had recently come out as gay, that they were openly gay,” Ware told CNN in a 2016 interview.
Since its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2016, “Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four” has earned a number of honors, including Outstanding Documentary at the GLAAD Media Awards and a Peabody Award this year. The documentary also took home the Outstanding Documentary Jury Award at Outfest LGBTQ Film Festival and the Frameline LGBT Film Festival and was nominated for an Emmy® for Outstanding Social Issues Documentary.
Filmmaker Deborah Esquenazi, an Austin, Texas, native, began her quest to shed light on the plight of The San Antonio Four in 2011. All four women were in prison, having turned down plea bargains to instead fight for their innocence. “This was back when the case was stale, the advocacy team small and four innocent women had languished in prison for a decade,” the filmmaker says.
Then Esquenazi and her crew captured three hours of the real story from one of the girls, now 25, who had cried rape – a story of the girls’ grandmother and father’s hatred for Ramirez and the prosecutors’ coaching of the girls, to lie on the stand.
The film – Esquenazi’s debut feature – culminates with the women being released from prison to await new exoneration hearings in San Antonio. “‘Southwest of Salem’ is fast-paced with several plot twists,” says Esquenazi, who is also a radio producer, instructor and journalist. “A lot unfolds in this emotional film.”
The story of The San Antonio Four and similar cases can cause a person to re-evaluate the country’s criminal justice system, says Anita DeAngelis, director of Mary B. Martin School of the Arts at ETSU. “One of the aspects of the South Arts Southern Circuit Tour that we truly appreciate is the fact that most of these independent films cause us to question and examine topics that we might not otherwise look at so closely.”
“Southwest of Salem” packs many issues into one 91-minute piece of cinematography: mythology, homophobia, cultural hysteria, the American justice system, racial prejudice, stigma, stereotypes and the damaging effects of falsified testimony.
“Nobody should have to face this type of agonizing p'rejudice, and hopefully their journeys were not in vain,” Esquenazi says in Variety. “Their case sits at the precipice of changing attitudes toward gay rights in America – and yet, so much more remains to be done to eradicate homophobia, misogyny and the railroading of innocents at the hands of our justice system.”
The screening of “Southwest of Salem” will be followed by a question-and-answer session and reception with filmmaker Esquenazi and film subject Anna Vasquez.
The Southern Circuit Tour of Independent Filmmakers is a program of South Arts. Southern Circuit screenings are funded in part by a grant from South Arts in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts. South Arts, founded in 1975, is a nonprofit regional arts organization building on the South's unique heritage and enhancing the public value of the arts. Their work responds to the arts environment and cultural trends with a regional perspective through an annual portfolio of activities designed to address the role of the arts in impacting the issues important to the region, and linking the South with the nation and the world through arts.
For information about the film screening or ETSU Mary B. Martin School of the Arts, call 423-439-TKTS (8587) or visit www.etsu.edu/martin. To learn more about Esquenazi’s work, visit www.DeborahEsquenazi.com. More information on the film is available at www.southwestofsalem.com.For disability accommodations, call the ETSU Office of Disability Services at 423-439-8346.