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Review: A tale of prejudice, ignorance and injustice unfolds in documentary ‘Southwest of Salem’

“Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four”
Anna Vasquez in the documentary “Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four.”
(Southwest of Salem / Naked Edge Films)

Deborah S. Esquenazi’s documentary “Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four” tells a miscarriage of justice tale that practically bursts with societal issues to address: homophobia, socioeconomic inequality, child abuse, trial misconduct, tabloid hysteria, junk science and innocence advocacy. For nearly half their lives, a quartet of Latina lesbians — Anna Vasquez, Elizabeth Ramirez, Cassandra Rivera and Kristie Mayhugh — have fought convictions for gang-raping two of Ramirez’s nieces, aged 7 and 9 at the time of the alleged abuse in the late 1990s.

Though its chronological organization and issue management is rough around the edges, Esquenazi’s passionately argued film — built on interviews with the Texas women and footage of their post-parole-release efforts to exonerate themselves — easily convinces that the charges are impossible to believe, yet that a perfect storm of ’90s panic surrounding gay intolerance, satanic ritual-abuse claims and iffy scientific evidence could turn a shaky case into a slam dunk.

We see one of the now-adult accusers recant her testimony, and the Innocence Project of Texas do wonders on behalf of the women, but the movie ends with their lives still in limbo. Seeing Ramirez, however, who earned the longest sentence — 37½ years — warmly greet her grown niece is emotionally powerful enough to make one think that the overarching theme of “Southwest of Salem” is the moving resilience of the wrongfully persecuted.

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‘Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four’

Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes

Not rated

Playing: Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills

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