Documentary Film Making Mexican Cinema History, and Sparking Social Change?

26 Mar

By Carlos Arredondo @

The new Mexican Documentary Film “Presunto Culpable” or “Presumed Guilty” is igniting a fire of awareness to an issue that has long ago been swept under the rug. The husband and wife team of lawyers, Roberto Hernandez and Layda Negrete, who are doctoral candidates at UC Berkeley and now filmmakers had the audacity to go digging under this dirty rug that is the Mexican Judicial System. And it is stirring up quite the dust-storm.

Wait, did I say “new” Mexican documentary film? It’s not new, not exactly. Let me explain… The film has been completed for several years now and already been showing abroad in various places since then. As a matter of fact, it has been winning awards since 2009 boasting accolades such as Best International Feature and Audience Award at the Los Angeles Film Festival amongst close to a dozen others. However, it wasn’t until earlier this year on February 18 that it was released into Mexican theatres across the nation. It quickly became a hit, but only after a few weeks showing in theatres a federal judge banned the movie due to a key character in the movie filing a complaint against the filmmakers for violating his privacy rights. The ban was lifted on March 14 and needless to say the whole controversy only exaggerated the buzzing popularity the film had already generated. Before the ban was even lifted, box office sales were already at 12.5 million pesos ($1.05 million US dollars) making it the highest grossing documentary in Mexican history.

So what is all the hype about? Well, the movie essentially is about Tono Zuniga who was picked up off the streets in Mexico City in 2005 and charged for a murder he knew nothing about and then sentenced to 20 years in prison. Lawyers Roberto and Layda, who had already helped another innocent man get his release from prison, took an interest in Zuniga’s case and managed to get a retrial… on camera. What ensued was a three year filming project of an unprecedented look inside the courtroom as the excruciating judiciary processes unfolded.

While the movie maybe does shine a light on a dark closet that maybe has never been visible to the public eye, the subject matter is approached with optimism and its overarching motives are positive. When the filmmakers were asked if they hold out hope for change in the Mexican criminal justice system their response was that they were very optimistic that it could change. And even point out that the corruption is not so much because of a people without morals but because of a poorly architected system that can make anyone corrupt by virtue of its design.

The filmmakers had encountered such statistics as an 80% conviction rate nationally, and 95% conviction rate in Mexico City. When sharing the findings of statistics to policymakers was ineffective to create change, they found that using images and stories was a better method to communicate the discovery of their studies. And effective is what it has been. Already the Mayor of Mexico City has pledged to place cameras in his courtrooms and some film distributors where the movie is showing have pledged to donate film profits toward local legal defense clinics. It has stimulated talk amongst the country’s leaders of judicial reform as well as created a new level of awareness amongst the general public.


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