It’s possible that I’ve never been happier to do an interview than the one I did for “Southwest of Salem” because it meant seeing Elizabeth Ramirez, Cassandra Rivera, Kristie Mayhugh and Anna Vasquez out of prison, where the quartet known as the “San Antonio Four” had expected to stay for decades. Convicted of sexual assault of a child in 1994, the four openly gay women were unfortunately all too ripe to be set up at the height of “Satanic Panic,” accused of raping Ramirez’s seven- and nine-year-old nieces in some witchcraft-laden ritual when anclear-eyed look at the case would reveal that the only conjuring would seem to be that of Javier Limon, the ex-boyfriend of Ramirez’s sister who is said to have coaxed the young girls to testify against their aunt after his advances towards Ramirez were rejected. Released from prison in 2012 after early parole, but still not free since they have yet to be exonerated, the women still were triumphantly received when “Southwest of Salem” premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year, a small recompense for being robbed of their twenties while being behind bars.
Even knowing of this (somewhat) happy ending, however, Deborah Esquenazi’s feature debut remains a taut and illuminating look at how the American justice system is hardly immune to the feverish whims of cultural climate it exists inside and how it can fail its most vulnerable, detailing a process in which a defense for Ramirez, Rivera, Mayhugh and Vasquez was only properly mounted well after the women had gone to trial. But more than that, “Southwest of Salem” goes to great lengths to present the women not as figures of pity but pillars of strength, drawn as much from the courage that allowed them to come out as lesbians in the heart of Texas to the love and support they have for each other. On the eve of the film’s West Coast premiere at Outfest LA, Ramirez, Rivera, Mayhugh and Vasquez were joined by director Esquenazi, transitioning to film after a career producing public radio, the film’s producer Sam Tabet and Mike Ware, an attorney with the Innocence Project of Texas who came to represent the four women, to talk about being the subjects of a film that was made while they were still behind bars, how the film’s structure, which shrewdly expands in scope as it wears on, came to be, and how “Southwest of Salem” will be able to help the San Antonio Four’s bid for full exoneration.
How did this come about?
Deborah Esquenazi: Debbie Nathan, my mentor from when I started off as a journalist and is the film talking about satanic panic, told me about the case. She’s the one who gave me all the discovery material from their case and from their trials and suggested that I look into it. That’s how it began — it was handed to me. But nobody saw the story in it because at the time, it was a case that had been languishing. [Potential producing partners were] like, “What’s the new angle?” That was incredibly frustrating because we knew that the women are innocent and the Innocence Project came on board. Debbie sent me a VHS tape, the contents of [which] is what you end up seeing in the film, with the women going on their own investigation, the women on the beach, the relationship between Cassie and Anna transpiring, and [the women] turning themselves in. Suddenly, it was like we’ve got something visually that is incredibly profound. Really, it was a combination of that tape and then being able to follow Mike Ware, the Innocence Project, as they strategize [that turned this into a movie].
Cassandra Rivera: As soon as we found out about [Deborah making the film], I know I was happy that someone was willing to go all the way as much as Debbie was to put our story out there.
Elizabeth Ramirez: We’d had visits from newspaper reporters and I really wasn’t sure if it was good or bad. But after talking to Deb and going further with it, I was really surprised. I was excited because finally, somebody’s going to hear our story and someone actually believes in our innocence. I was excited and I wanted more out there; that’s exactly what she did.
Anna Vasquez: You’ve got to understand when this all began in 1994, all the publicity we had which was little to none, was bad. When we did have news people coming in, or even Debbie, we didn’t know, “Do you really see our innocence, or do you just want to make a film? Is it just for your behalf or are you really going to help us?” When I ended the first interview with Deb and Debbie Nathan — and in parts of the film you can see that — that was my first interview with them, I saw that it really affected them. They were crying and they don’t even know me. I really felt like, “Okay, they’re on my side.” [Deb] really wanted to tell our story and show everything that we fought for. Now, it’s on a big screen.
That video that Deborah mentions, where did it come from?
Cassandra Rivera: That was me and Anna [Vasquez]. I had begged my mom for a camcorder for my birthday right before all of that, only because I had two kids and I wanted to record every moment that I could of their lives. Unfortunately, it was cut off in 2000 because we had to turn ourselves in. So that was all my footage from when we were together and from our kids. The first time I saw parts of the documentary and I realized that some of it was in it, to see we had done all that was amazing. It touched me in so many ways. I cried.
One of the things I loved about the film is how it’s structured where you exclusively hear from the four women at first and then slowly reveal everyone involved in the case. How did that approach come about?
Deborah Esquenazi: It’s the true crime structure. When we started editing, we knew we wanted to make a true crime film with that pace, but it was also a film about family and all these other things, so it was about giving you all that you need to know so that when we pull it apart, you already have the information.
Sam Tabet: We had all the information upfront in prior cuts and it was too confusing. People didn’t know what was going on. So we stepped back and said, okay, we need to introduce [the four women] first, get to know them, love them and then we find out what happened to them, so we’re already anchored for the rest of it.
Deborah Esquenazi: They all reveal something very vulnerable about themselves at the beginning, and we talked about this in the editing room. Anna’s talking about her coming out right away. Cassie’s talking about the moment she meets Anna. There’s all these things that make you really connect to the characters right away.
What was the interview process like for this? Were those restricted visits to the prison?
Deborah Esquenazi: Yes, restricted, except for the first interview, which I had two people with me for, but it was mostly me alone. We just connected and had these conversations that were about life and I think that intimacy that you see on screen is because these women were willing to reveal to me, maybe because it was just me.
Anna Vasquez: [One of the reasons] I was able to actually talk to [Deb] as a friend and more than a film director is that she’s gay as well. She has such passion for us and our case because she realizes that it could have happened to her. Being gay, it’s still an alternative lifestyle that people look at differently. I don’t know if we’ll ever fully be looked at as just another human being, so that’s what drew me to Deb to be able to open up the way I did.
Elizabeth Ramirez: I would have to say the same thing. The things I discussed with her that were private and emotional she could relate because she is gay and I’m sure in her life, she might have gone through something, so she could relate to me in that area. I felt like I didn’t have to hold back anything.
Deb, you’ve said you actually wound up recording the testimony from Stephanie, Elizabeth’s niece, that proves crucial to what happens in the case. Was that something you had to grapple with as a filmmaker observing the case?
Deborah Esquenazi: Yes, insofar as Mike calls me and tells me she’s going to recant. It’s in the film – I pick up a camera and go to Houston. Then we have this recorded recantation, so the question as a filmmaker became, “Do we release the footage? Do we keep it so that at the end of the film we have a film with this explosive recantation?” It was so clear that I’m implicated in the moral parts of their journey to innocence that it would have been immoral to keep it [for myself]. In the end, I don’t know that it would have mattered. Maybe the recantation would have [come and gone] quietly, but by leaking the footage, the media had something they could show.
Mike Ware: Ultimately, according to Judge Priest, the recantation doesn’t count for anything legally, but the thing about this case is from the beginning, after I interviewed each of these four women in the prison, I could see that this was clearly a case where the truth was on our side. The more transparency, the more light that shown on it, the better it was going to be for us. We didn’t have any dirty little secrets, which is rare in a criminal case. That’s why I felt really good about any person who was interested in doing a documentary about this case. I thought, “Well, I like it,” because like I said, each one of these women are very impressive. If you get to know them, you know they’re obviously innocent, so I saw a documentary as an excellent vehicle to get that message out.
So Mike, does the film and case became intertwined in your mind in how active you were in both?
Mike Ware: Being an effective lawyer is all about being able to tell an effective story. The courtroom is such a stifled atmosphere, 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. You don’t get shut down by objections and to me, the rules of evidence more often than not are more about hiding the truth than they are about getting the truth out there, so to some extent, yeah, [the film and the case] became one. As a lawyer, it’s important to understand the difference. This case was such a hard case from the beginning. On the one hand, we had the truth on our side. On the other hand, everything else was stacked against us and we needed all the help we could get in getting our story and the truth out there told. The documentary does such a good job of telling the story in way that is absolutely true, but in a way that no lawyer could ever do in a courtroom.
Deborah Esquenazi: It’s interesting, we have this interchangeable quote that we say that Mike deals with the legal courtroom and we’re in the court of the public opinion. They’re two different courts, both incredibly important, obviously the legal one most important. But there’s another courtroom here, which is the mobilizing part. I feel like what we can do is we can show all the layers and work together really powerfully. We all in a way became partners and collaborators here because I have to spend a ton of time with Anna since she’s [registered as] a sex offender, I have to spend a ton of time with Mike as he’s strategizing and I’ve got to go back and forth to the prisons, which is in itself an administrative nightmare because getting into the prison, you have to be constantly cleared. There are all these things that if we didn’t all want to work together, it would have been incredibly challenging to tell such a textured and layered story. But what never, ever was a question was their innocence. Never.
Knowing that you had this platform of a film, was there anything that was particularly important to convey?
Elizabeth Ramirez: I just felt whenever Deb visited me, it was to tell the truth – whatever she asked, just tell the truth and as long as I was truthful, there was nothing else.
Anna Vasquez: The part of the documentary where I was the first one out and these girls are in prison and I’m fighting for them, saying, “Why me? Why me?” – I felt like I was their voice. When I was released, I got a hundred dollars after so many years. If it wasn’t for my family, I don’t know what I would’ve done. I helped with fundraisers and whatnot for them so that when they did get out, they had $700 for each one because we had nothing. Liz was gone for 17 years. Yes, they all had families, but we’re just working class people and just like it hurt my family to hurt me, I didn’t want that burden to be on them. I liked that [shown in the film].
I also like the fact how [Deb showed] the restrictions I had where I had to follow certain routes as a registered sex offender. Something that takes me maybe two minutes to get to, which [you see in] that [scene at] HEB, it now takes me like six minutes because I have to follow certain routes. It’s really difficult, so I’m glad that it shows our struggle in the film. Even though we were in prison and I was released, it wasn’t just, “Okay, we’re free.” Still to this day, we still have restrictions. We just can’t pick up and leave.
Elizabeth Ramirez: Yeah, they didn’t just take our freedom. They took everything else. Even at that, we still have to do so much more. [Anna] had to do so much more just to be able to be free. We all have to still report and do everything until we’re exonerated. We’re still really all locked up still except we’re locked up outside.
As Elizabeth alludes to, this is still sadly still ongoing. Deb, how did you know the right time to stop filming?
Deborah Esquenazi: There was always an anxiety about how we would end it, but it was so clear when the evidentiary hearings happened.
Sam Tabet: After the exoneration trial, we wanted to get the film out as soon as possible to put pressure on the public and the courts. Then when the judge made his ruling in February, we were almost done so we had to change the ending.
Deborah Esquenazi: We were locked already into Tribeca [with an April premiere].
Sam Tabet: It was a political decision to end it then so we could help their case and to put pressure on the district attorney in San Antonio. [We’re asking audiences] to call him and ask him to take a stand for actual innocence to exonerate the women.
Deborah Esquenazi: That’s really the best way right now to mobilize. This is the kind of thing where the more voices involved, the more pressure we can put [on], and we have an “Act Now” page on our website and as it changes we can update it.
What was the experience of watching this movie like for you?
Anna Vasquez: Breathtaking. We went to the screenings that were just bits and pieces of things, but to actually see it in its entirety is really, amazing.
Cassandra Rivera: I was at a loss for words. It was very emotional. The way they put it all together, it was exactly everything we went through. It was like just seeing everything happen all over again and it was very moving.
Elizabeth Ramirez: Because I was locked up in 1997, I didn’t know the girls were doing everything they were doing. For me, it was all new. It just showed me how we all stuck together and how everyone shared their part in it and how they never gave up either. Even though I was incarcerated and I was found guilty, they were still fighting. To me, that was real important.
Kristie Mayhugh: It was emotional. I like the way it all came together and I think it explained everything so people can understand it and feel what we went through and what we’re still going through.
“Southwest of Salem” opens on September 30th in Los Angeles at the Music Hall. A full list of upcoming screenings is here.