Remember the days, not so long ago, when to suggest that there existed such a thing as a ‘false sexual allegation’ saw you under siege on Twitter for days on end? It was a ‘vile’ suggestion which could only come from someone who was a ‘paedo-supporter’ and who must be hounded into ignominy?
Remember the days, not so long ago, when every allegation, however bizarre, was carried proudly on the front page of the newspapers – and the comments columns underneath were filled with sweet sounding people called ‘Sylvie,Walsall’ volunteering to nail the accused to the front door of the local church and save everyone the expense of having a trial; or demanding chemical castration on arrest, because why wait until they had ‘wriggled their way out of court’?
My, the tide has turned. Across the country, ordinary families have lived through the agony of a false allegation, made in the heat of a divorce battle, or after a failed relationship. They have mortgaged their homes, spent sleepless nights, lost friends, as they battled to clear their name. We must be close to the point where every family in the land knows someone or is related to someone who was swept up in the hysteria.
It is starting to dawn on folk that the millions that have been spent creating headline news, and massaging police investigation figures, would have been better spent protecting the children of today rather than feathering the nest for a raft of lawyers.
The media, sensing the iceberg ahead, has ordered ‘hard-a-starboard’ and with their mighty engines full astern, is filling those column inches with a daily diet of demands to know why ‘x’ case was ever brought to court, or detailing the devastation caused to ‘y’s career.
The film industry has put a cautious toe in the water and made a documentary showing how four defendants were ‘legally railroaded’ into prison courtesy of spurious allegations. Their trials are described as ‘Kafkaesque’; emotionally harrowing; decimating their families, relationships, reputations and careers.
Eventually, the ‘Innocence Project’ took up their case, and a court overturned their convictions. But they have not been declared innocent, and face a lifetime of being branded as sex offenders unless they can be exonerated.
Hence the determination of the journalist behind this film to show just how ‘broken’ the justice system is; how near impossible it is to actually clear your name once an allegation has been made – regardless of whether you have been through the court system, or merely been ‘NFA’d as it is known – told that there is ‘insufficient evidence’ to charge you.
I do wonder if the filmmakers would have had the courage to make such an emotive and sympathetic film had these four defendants not been homosexual. It has allowed them to portray the trial and incarceration as being ‘homophobic’, and to explore the all too common myth that every homosexual is a latent paedophile – something the court case dwelt on at length.
I am quite, quite certain, that the film would never have been made at all had the defendants not all been women…
It’s one of the film’s great strengths, humanizing and giving voice to women who have been silenced, denigrated and marginalized.
It is a beautiful portrait of four women whose strength carries them through the injustice forced upon them. Blending a true crime aesthetic with intimate access to the daily lives of the women and their families, Esquenazi tells their story with compassion, grace and a palpable anger at a justice system in ruins.
We must be grateful for small mercies – if it takes the unfair incarceration of four gay women to give documentary makers the courage to show that the atavistic hysteria which has swept across our land has left more victims in its wake than it set out to ‘protect’, so be it. That the money which could never be found to provide proper protection for the small and the vulnerable in hospitals, care homes and children’s homes can flow like water over Niagara Falls when demanded by lawyers and Chief Constables.
The film is due for release on September 16th in the US.
‘Southwest of Salem’ provides poignant testimony to the consequences of wrongful persecution and incarceration—as well as the ultimate strength and, indeed, triumph of human spirit. Engrossing, timely and heartbreaking, the unwavering perseverance of the San Antonio Four has resulted in their release from prison – and fans the flames of hope for their exoneration.’
I look forward to the day when similar documentaries fill our screens in the UK – showing the consequences of false allegations, not just for chosen elite groups, but for all the ordinary folk trying to defend themselves against the pernicious behaviour of the police and judiciary.
Just as I look forward to the day when those in charge of looking after children are once more kind hearted but firm men and women acting in loco parentis, not robotic ideologues who think that a 14 year old girl staying out all night with her ‘boyfriend’ is merely exercising a lifestyle choice.
Deborah S. Esquenazi,
Southwest of Salem,
Tribeca Film Festival