It’s always fascinating to observe the accidental threads that emerge over the course of a single festival, when the pulse of the popular subconscious reveals itself via multiple films taking on similar subjects. This year, one of Tribeca’s hot topics was the criminal justice system, and how it deals with the innocent, the guilty, and the unknown.
Southwest of Salem
Deborah Esquenazi’s documentary tells the story of the “San Antonio Four,” and the echoes of that nickname (as well as the title of the film that tells their story) are deliberate. Much like the West Memphis Three, these four young women were accused of an unthinkable crime at the tail end of America’s weird Satanic cult fever- “the last gasp of the Satanic ritual abuse panic,” as one expert puts it. The story made for breathless headlines (“siblings Satan sex assault”), and it put these women away for more than a decade, until discrepancies, questions, and a recantation made clear the accusations just didn’t hold water. The film is tilted, sure (but can you blame them?), and some of the filmmaking is more than a little dodgy, technically speaking. But it’s a film of righteous anger and emotional indignation, shining a light on how easy it is for a case like this to pick up speed and careen out of control before anyone can stop it.
Kristi Jacobson’s portrait of a handful of prisoners in Virginia’s Red Onion supermax prison could’ve easily gone for tub-thumping ideology – portraying these prisoners as either feral monsters or helpless victims. Instead, she raises complex issues of morality and punishment, and situates her subjects within them; she will searingly convey their claustrophobia and other effects of their incarceration mentality, but gives equal time to their harrowing descriptions of their horrifying crimes. These are scary, unstable people, but there’s an argument to be made that spending 23 hours a day, seven days a week in an 8×10 cell has much to do with the accumulation of those qualities. Her camera regards her subjects and their surroundings unblinkingly, and offers up no easy answers to its central question: Does inhumane behavior warrant inhumane treatment? Intelligent, thoughtful, and tough documentary filmmaking.