The price they paid: The story of four women wrongfully accused of child sexual abuse and their journey to justice

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Julia Readett reviews Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four at the Queer Screen Festival:

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Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four explores the compelling and unbelievable case of four Latina lesbian women who were accused of child sexual abuse.

The documentary begins simply with stark shots of the four women, Liz, Anna, Christie and Cassie, telling the story of their wrongful accusation in their own words. We learn that Anna and Cassie had come out to their families as lesbians and had begun a relationship together, caring for Cassie’s two children. Both women sought refuge in each other and found a safe space to be themselves in the home of Liz Ramirez, friends from high school who also identifies as a lesbian and had a partner who lived with her, Christie. One day, Javier, Liz’s sister’s ex-husband, drops his kids off to their house and leaves them for fourteen days. After the kids are picked up, Anna, Liz, Christie and Cassie receive phone calls saying that the two young children have accused them of sexually abusing them. What begins is a traumatic and quick trail where the women are convicted of the crime, based solely on the children’s testimonies and, of course, biases in the jury about lesbian women being paedophiles and sexually deviant.

This case is heightened by the sensation gripping the US during the 80s and 90s, which was a preoccupation with Satanic ritualised violence against children. According to Debbie Nathan, a journalist who has worked extensively on the case, the case of the San Antonio Four is the “last gasp” of this hysteria surrounding satanic abuse of children. The obsession linked satanic cult-like behaviour with homosexuality and led to the incarceration of many openly gay and suspected gay childcare workers. Anna, Christie and Cassie were sentenced to 15 years in jail and Liz sentenced to 37.5 years.

As the story continues to unfold, home-footage is used extensively throughout the documentary, and new evidence and testimonies come to the fore. A group of attorneys and lawyers in the Innocence Project, take on the case and represent the four women in their journey to seek justice for the complete lack of evidence. Advances in science reveal that pathologies of the young children considered victims were in fact false and Stephanie, one of the young children, comes forward with her truth.

As a viewer, you are subsumed in this outrageous story of four innocent women convicted of a crime that has arisen directly out of prejudices and stereotypes about the queer community. You are positioned as a detective, sifting through a wealth of knowledge and a plethora of different avenues in which the case leads. Interviews that span across the 12 years the women were in prison provide a keen sense of their isolation and abandonment from a homophobic society.

Their story is brought to harsh life through this documentary that reveals the way in which queer individuals are subject to bias courts and homophobic structures beyond their control. Their love and support of each other transcends their separation through prison, however, the documentary shows how their case and struggle for justice continues to be unrelenting. Southwest of Salem places the clarity and conviction of the San Antonio Fours’ innocence against a system defined by murky and fragile prejudice and injustice of the criminal court system. Race, gender, sexuality and class oppression collide in this stunning documentary, causing the lives of four Latina Lesbians to be tragically changed forever.

The Queer Screen Festival runs from 20-25th September. For more information see: http://queerscreen.org.au/queer-screen-film-fest-2016/

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