Overview: This documentary follows four lesbian women who were wrongfully convicted of sexually abusing children during a nationwide panic about Satanic ritual cults. Motto Pictures/Naked Edge Films; 2016; Not Rated; 91 minutes.
The Straight and Narrow: It’s not unusual for true-crime documentaries to play with form to mess with audience expectations. The sub-genre has historically been one of the best sites for that sort of stylistic experimentation. The reason for this recurrence is the familiar structure that these films share. When the film begins, a crime will have happened, an investigation will have taken place, and maybe a suspect will have emerged. Since we don’t know any of that right off the bat, the film is free to toy with our predictive inclinations. But for all the same reasons why that formal playfulness is so enticing, it also toes a dangerously thin line. Diving headfirst into cinematic tricks can seem exploitative given the facts of the crime being explored. I’m not sure if Southwest of Salem intends to toe that line, but it does, in ways that can feel tone-deaf and inappropriate.
Twisted: The film starts, as usual, with a thorough exploration of the crime (or, in this case, the lack thereof). We’re told about the four lesbian women at the center of the case, and how they were framed for molesting two young girls at a time when homophobia and a Satanic panic gripped the nation. The talking head segments with the framed women all take place inside prison, so you know right from the start how this story ends. It shrouds the film in an oppressive sense of dread. As each piece falls into place, as these women fight for their innocence, we know it’s all for nothing. We know they’re going to lose. I admired the film for this unremitting bleakness. It felt necessary, given the story’s horrific details.
But then the film takes a turn. I won’t give it away – ridiculous as it seems that a straightforward documentary could have a spoiler attached – but the ending which the film spends most of its runtime gesturing towards is not the ending at which it arrives. It comes about as a necessary fact of its production timeline, but in context it feels deliberately misleading. On the other hand, that bleak tone is so effective and appropriate that it’s more or less excusable.
Eyes on the Prize: I don’t want to seem too critical of Southwest of Salem. It’s a story that needed telling, for one thing. It says a lot about the outbreak of Satanic cult paranoia in the ’80s and ’90s and how it was tied to rising homophobia. There’s a great segment about how the fake crime which the four women were accused of has its roots in classic fairy tale imagery, with witches luring innocent children away to be corrupted and violated. The film keeps its focus on the case, but these themes probably deserve a documentary of their own. The film tells its story with boundless empathy, too, an important trait in this sub-genre. Too many true-crime docs become so obsessed with chasing the story that they forget about the people who had to live through that story. In Southwest of Salem, less time is spent on the specifics of the narrative than on how those details affected the central characters. As its cast expands and its story gets knottier, Southwest of Salem never loses track of the four women at its core: what they were thinking, how they were feeling, and what it all meant to them. That generosity of spirit elevates Southwest of Salem, making it something more than the sort of “important” documentary that you feel as though you should watch.
Overall: Its unfortunate narrative structure aside, Southwest of Salem is a gracious, empathetic, important documentary.
Southwest of Salem was featured at the Reel Q Film Festival.
Featured Image: Motto Pictures/Naked Edge Films