Strange Bedfellows: True Crime TV + Pride

Here at Active Voice Lab, we’re celebrating Pride Month by honoring the storytellers who have changed the cultural narrative to advance LGBTQ equality. I think about the late, great Marlon Riggs’ Tongues Untied (which we had the privilege to air on POV in 1991), a shocking lesbian kiss on a Roseanne episode (1994), and stereotype crushing Brokeback Mountain (2005).

Which brings me to Deborah Esquenazi, whose electrifying feature-length documentary Southwest of Salem follows story of four lesbian Latinas (“The San Antonio 4”) who were falsely accused and convicted of child abuse.

I met Deborah at Frameline40: San Francisco International LGBTQ Film Festival, where we were both on a panel called “LGBTQ Films as an Agent of Social Change”: Then and Now.” (Ok, yes, I was part of the “Then”…I’ll take it.)  The film had just premiered and the response was overwhelming. But it wasn’t just the intimate and unblinking filmmaking that I admired — it was the strategy and generosity she brought to the project from day one. Here’s what I learned that might be helpful to you, too:

  • Deborah found about the so-called “San Antonio 4” from a mentor/reporter and immediately started primary research through deep relationship-building with the subjects. Not every filmmaker can, or wants this level of contact, but Deborah signed on as an ally and champion.

  • Courageously, she organized small screenings of raw footage throughout production. I find this extraordinary, but Deborah insists that the feedback she received helped her understand the beats and resonance of the complex, deeply nuanced story.

  • Spoiler Alert! This is amazing to me: she ended the film before the more traditional conclusion–a court decision on the appeal brought forward by the Innocence Project of Texas.  Deborah knew the story could be helpful to the case in progress, so she raised awareness about the injustice, not as a detached observer might, but as a passionate storyteller can.


Who chooses activism over an elegant three act structure? Dedicated storytellers like my new hero, Deborah Esquenazi, that’s who. And what’s more, her decisions about transparency, timing, and relationships didn’t compromise the film’s artistry one bit. Indeed, Southwest of Salem’s blend of true crime TV aesthetics and sophisticated social commentary won a Peabody Award, Frameline40’s Outstanding Documentary Jury Award, Critics Choice for Best Feature 2016, and the 2017 GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Documentary.

In November of 2016, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals exonerated the four women that Deborah had been fighting for, citing Southwest of Salem directly.

You can read more about Shovels – films like Southwest of Salem, that dig for the truth – here.