'I Helped Four Women Get out of Prison': Deborah Esquenazi on True-Crime Doc 'Southwest of Salem'
More than two decades after four Texas lesbians were sent to prison for child abuse, a documentary about their case has helped set them free.
Southwest of Salem: The Story of the San Antonio Four began as a righteous inquiry into the 1994 trials of Anna Vasquez, Elizabeth Ramirez, Cassandra Rivera, and Kristie Mayhugh, who were convicted of molesting two young girls under dubious forensic evidence and the “Satanic panic” hysteria of the time. But over the course of filming, director Deborah S. Esquenazi–who is also a radio journalist–acquired an onscreen recanted confession from one of the original accusers. With help from the Innocence Project of Texas, that set off a chain reaction leading to a retrial and the four women being released from prison (though they await a final say on whether they will be fully exonerated of the charges). And as a bonus, it allowed Esquenazi to get the funds she needed to finish her film.
Ahead of the movie’s world premiere tomorrow at the Tribeca Film Festival, Esquenazi spoke to No Film School by phone from her home in Austin to talk about why she released the damning footage early, what lessons she drew from Errol Morris and how she gets her subjects involved in the making of their own stories.
NFS: How did you first find the story of the San Antonio Four and decide that this was something you could make a documentary about?
Esquenazi: I first heard about their case through an investigative reporter named Debbie Nathan, who’s actually in the film. She writes quite a bit for The Nation and wrote a book, what I consider to be the primer on the "Satanic Panic," called Satan’s Silence. She did a lot of investigative stuff for Capturing the Friedmans. So when she brought it to me, she said, “You know, you really should be looking at this. This case is crazy, and I can’t believe these women are still languishing in prison." She had sort of known about it in a sideways way and when she realized they were still in prison she wanted to work on it from an advocacy side and thought there was a story to tell in terms of the women.
Initially I was actually teaching radio documentary, which is how I have my background, in journalism and radio producing. I actually tried to pitch it to my NPR affiliate and it was rejected across the board. Nobody saw a story in it. But I had already made several short films. And I got this tape in the mail from her–it was a VHS tape, and it was an extraordinary tape, and I knew we really had a film when I watched that tape. Some of the old footage, the home video footage, where they go on the hunt for exculpatory evidence and all that stuff–that was all on that tape… Even though they didn’t find anything, the action of going on the hunt and taping your own criminal investigation, to me, was a massive sign of, not only innocence, but desperation. From a character perspective, that’s just that desperate need to show you’re innocent. You’re going to do anything you can.
I mean, you can imagine–I’d read the transcripts, I’d met the women in prison. And suddenly I had this tape in my lap and I was like, “Oh, shit. This is really strong, and really heartbreaking.” And slowly we pieced together the film thinking it was really just going to be an information about the case, sort of a retrospective with the footage, but we found ourselves re-investigating and suddenly getting a recantation, which I think really just changed things radically for us. Suddenly we had this other thing happening. It was an investigative case, it was true crime, we were part of the reason why these women got out of prison. But it really did start with the contents of that tape.
"It never was going to be a film about whether or not they are innocent. They are innocent."
NFS: Did you try to get additional courtroom or archival footage from the time of the trials, or did you know you were going to primarily be using interviews with the women in the present day?
Esquenazi: We definitely tried to get news footage. The only news footage from the trial, specifically, that existed was about three minutes, so you do see it briefly. I had the trial transcripts from Debbie Nathan. When I started R&D I really combed through the trial transcripts and it really came alive for me. Particularly the first trial, which was Liz Ramirez’s trial, the woman who received 37.5 years. Her trial transcripts were crazy. It really painted a picture for me that we could even just use that as a way to tell this other story.
NFS: The film is very intimate, for obvious reasons. Was it hard to earn the women’s trust from the get-go? You became so involved with the case.
Esquenazi: I don’t think it was hard to earn the women’s trust. They had been languishing in prison for such a long time before I came onboard. And because I was in the process of coming out myself, I revealed that to them, and that created, I think, a much deeper bond while they were in prison. They knew I was coming at it from a place of sincerity, and I really did care about their case.
I would say it was harder to get some of the families’ trust. Because the families were the ones that were enduring with them on the outside, so the could see the world evolve, but still they were carrying the anxiety of having to deal with the past. And that was challenging. You sort of have to accept that part of what you’re doing as a documentarian is, you’re allowing people who are going to be involved to partner with you, and you have to be there willing to answer the questions: “Yes, you can trust me.” It’s always a little awkward, because you’re in a position of power as the person with the camera.
"You sort of have to accept that part of what you’re doing as a documentarian is, you’re allowing people who are going to be involved to partner with you, and you have to be there willing to answer the questions: 'Yes, you can trust me.'"
NFS: It’s told so much from the accused’s perspectives. You seem to really be trusting the audience not to necessarily need the journalistic inquiry, and to just get through the story with the first-person accounts.
Esquenazi: Yes. It never was going to be a film about whether or not they are innocent. They are innocent. And I know that because we know the science was junk that indicted them, we know the extraordinary amount of homophobia that existed. Because I read the trial transcripts I could see there was a kind of anxiety in the way they were talking to the juror. It has never been a question to me about whether or not they were innocent. So I was always going to tell a story about how they were going to get freed.
NFS: There are several true crime documentaries out there that have been seeing success lately. Did you look to any of those films, like Central Park Five or Making a Murderer, when putting yours together?
Esquenazi: I didn’t, because I had been working on this for five years, so those were just being released while we were already in the process of cutting the film. I definitely have been influenced by some great, great documentaries, the Paradise Lost trilogy of course being the big one. In terms of the "Satanic Panic," there’s also this amazing film that won an Oscar called Murder on Sunday Morning that was the first criminal justice doc I’d ever seen, and it really still to this day stays with me. The Thin Blue Line, by Errol Morris, because when we were able to recapture the recantation on camera, we really found ourselves having this precious bit of new evidence to this case. So we did actually watch The Thin Blue Line to see how Errol Morris dealt with that.
"I made this decision that leaking the footage was the right thing to do. And it absolutely was."
NFS: You took the unusual step for a doc filmmaker of allowing news crews access to footage before your film had been completed.
Esquenazi: Yes, yes I did. And I was nervous about it, I won’t lie. This isn’t really done. When you make a film you protect it. But I had to ask myself, am I making this because it’s a film or am I making this because I really believe in the women’s innocence? And I made this decision that leaking the footage was the right thing to do. And it absolutely was. There’s a moment when Anna comes out of prison and she’s in a car with her mom and it’s just her. There’s nobody else there besides me and a photographer. And by the time the three other defendants come out, there’s just this massive amount of press there. The people there are MSNBC, CNN, the national press. And really, the reason why is because, early on, we leaked that footage. Nobody gave a shit about this case, let’s be honest. It was a difficult case to talk about. Having that recantation, though, really adds clarity and adds credibility to it.
NFS: It must have been strange to suddenly play this instrumental role.
Esquenazi: It was amazing. I will never forget, ever, ever ever ever, the day of the three defendants coming out and everybody in tears. I’ll never forget that moment. It’s the highlight of my journalistic career. I’ve always wanted to be an investigative reporter and a journalist, and making films has always been this great passion for me and I’ve made short films, almost all about criminal justice, but I never imagined a day where I’d be able to say, “I helped four women get out of prison.” It’s in my bones. It’s the coolest thing.
"When you find yourself in this position behind the camera, please take a moment to pause and ask yourself, 'How can I be careful in the way I’m representing other people’s stories?'"
NFS: What advice would you have for other documentary filmmakers when working with subjects who have been through such ordeals, or are approaching stories of this magnitude?
Esquenazi: It’s such a good question, such an important one. I really do think about issues of agency and representation a lot. And the reason for that is because the individual stories I’m partnering to tell are usually people who aren’t really given the opportunity and the platform to do so. So I do think it’s the Susan Sontag-ian, “the camera is a form of sublimated murder” kind of a thing, where we do have a lot of power. I’m doing another investigative film with the Innocence Project, a sort of mystery on a Native American reservation, and the first thing I did, because I’m not Native American, was to say, “How can I have you tell this story? What can I teach you?” So I give cameras, and I give recorders, and I do some training: “If something comes up, I need you to record it, and you give me the permission to become part of the process.” So they become partners and screenwriters with me.
So the advice I give is, when you find yourself in this position behind the camera, please take a moment to pause and ask yourself, “How can I be careful in the way I’m representing other people’s stories?” Particularly when it comes to people of color, or people of marginalized neighborhoods. There is a very sensitive line of exploitation versus enhancement that happens. And that also bleeds into conversations about credibility and sincerity, because you’re being really genuine and present with your subjects and your partners about the film and the stories you want to tell…
"I do think there is a shift in the way we’re telling these narratives, and I for me, in my future as a filmmaker I’m absolutely moving into a more participatory approach."
And the new crop of filmmakers coming up, behind Errol Morris, and myself, I do think there is a shift in the way we’re telling these narratives, and I think for me, in my future as a filmmaker [I’m] absolutely moving into a more participatory approach. And I did do that in Southwest of Salem. Anna Vasquez, we did screenwrite together. There are some moments where you hear her voice, particularly the love letters… We worked on making that a much more powerful piece. And we wrote that together based on the love letter she wrote.
NFS: So she became involved in the construction of the film, too.
Esquenazi: Yes. Nobody’s allowed in the editing room–that’s a sacred space. But having screenwriting meetings–“screenwriting” is kind of a funny word to use in this case, but I do write quite a bit with the people I’m working with. So I ask them to keep journals, and then I take their journals, and we’ll talk about them in the cutting room.
NFS: It seems like you could have done this film as a podcast.
Esquenazi: Those things weren’t really around [five years ago], you know? I know it sounds crazy because it feels like they’ve been around forever, but they really weren’t popular. So I wouldn’t have thought, at the time, to do a podcast, which of course would have saved me an extraordinary amount of money. But on the other hand, I think the key in this was leaking that recantation footage, and that really shifted the interest in it. It also made people have faith in the story, as well as, of course, my funders coming onboard–people like Sundance and Chicken & Egg.
NFS: Did you only get the funders onboard after you leaked the footage?
Esquenazi: Yes, actually. Nobody came onboard until after the footage. And I’m not saying the funders didn’t want to. Sundance wrote me a letter. I was rejected from the first round, and they wrote me a letter saying, “Please reapply.” So I think it was between then that the recantation happened. So I don’t want to say that they only came onboard after. I’m saying it absolutely helped that the recantation was part of the footage that I presented to my funders. Because at that point, not only is it conflict, but it’s also like, “Oh, hey, this really was in the figment of the imaginations of prosecutors.”