'Presumed Guilty': New film exposes flaws in Mexico judiciary

A Mexican judge on Monday ruled that 'Presunto Culpable' (Presumed Guilty) can continue showing in theaters. Mexico City's mayor, after seeing the film, pledged to place cameras in his courtrooms.

Alexandre Meneghini/AP
Antonio Zuniga, the protagonist of the documentary 'Presumed Guilty,' poses for a photo in Mexico City, Wednesday, Feb. 16. The award-winning film's directors and protagonist hope it galvanizes Mexicans to demand changes to their failed legal system.

The fact that a documentary about Mexico’s faulty judicial system was pulled from Mexican theaters has made it all the more appealing to moviegoers, helping turn it into the highest-grossing documentary in Mexican history and sparking talk among this country's leaders of judicial reform.

A federal judge on March 2 banned “Presunto Culpable” (Presumed Guilty) after the directors were sued for filming one person without permission. The film, about a convicted murderer who spent two years successfully proving his innocence, won the audience award for best international feature at the 2010 Los Angeles Film Festival and began showing here in February.

The film was briefly suspended, but the ban was legally challenged last week and the film continued showing in theaters while the case pended. As the news circulated, the irony that a film about Mexico’s opaque justice system was being “censored” by that very system drove the Mexican media into a frenzy, bringing in more publicity than the promoters could have dreamed of.

IN PICTURES: Mexico's drug war

By the time the court stay against the film was officially lifted March 14, box office sales had doubled from 6.4 million pesos ($535,000) per weekend one month ago to 12.5 million ($1.05 million) this past weekend, the daily Milenio newspaper reported.

Walk by any street vendor selling pirated movies in Mexico City and chances are "Presumed Guilty" is blaring from a hotwired TV monitor instead of the usual Hollywood blockbuster. The city’s mayor, Marcelo Ebrard, was so inspired that he pledged to place cameras in his courtrooms.

"This might very well become a landmark case on freedom of speech and censorship in Mexico," said Pablo Jimenez, a lawyer for the film distributor Cinepolis, which pledged to donate film profits toward legal defense clinics here.

Twitter was aflutter all Monday on news of the judge’s decision. And the comments only showed how dedicated the fan base has become: “I saw 'Presumed Guilty' three times,” one gushed. “Take that, judge … now we’ll see how things go at the box office,” tweeted another, seemingly aware of the publicity generated by the temporary ban.

That’s not to say the movie didn’t also attract audiences on its own merit. The docudrama walks viewers step-by-step through faulty paperwork and sketchy evidence and brings a camera into places almost impossible to film in Mexico.

A surreal “courtroom” revolves around a tiny desk with a computer where a stenographer records witness and lawyer statements after they are repeated phrase-by-phrase by a judge. In this paper-based trial, the prosecutor refuses to discuss what she’s already submitted in print. Footage of the crowded jail cell shows that the protagonist, Antonio Zúñiga, sleeps on the ground underneath a sunken bed in a spot dubbed “the tomb.”

However, "Presumed Guilty" does not deal with the fact that the real killer is still at large – another fallout of a flawed justice system. Some estimate impunity as high as 98 percent in Mexico.

The film still faces obstacles, such as a court order to remove both the image and name of the witness who had filed suit, an effort to promote privacy that is only gaining traction in Mexico. And the case has yet to be resolved definitively, as a decision on the substance of the suit is due later this month, Luis Schmidt, the filmmakers’ lawyer, told local radio.

But it seems that any controversy that touches "Presumed Guilty" will only help turn it into box office gold – and perhaps even help bring about legal reforms here.

IN PICTURES: Mexico's drug war

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