Presumed Guilty

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Can a documentary change the world?

Entertainment Weekly lists among twelve documentaries that “changed the world,” such films as “An Inconvenient Truth,” “The Cove,” “Supersize Me” and “Fahrenheit 9/11.” While their impact on the entire worldcould be debated, there is no doubt that these serious (and seriously entertaining)films played an important role in raising awarenessaround the issues of climate change, dolphin slaughter, fast food and Bush’s war on terror. And it can be argued that a film alone changes nothing – like the proverbial tree in the forest -- but if a filmis remembered by viewers after they leave the cozy, popcorn-punctuated comfort of the theater, if the entertainment translates into discomfort and noise -- it is the viewers whocan begin to make the change in whatever world is their entire world.

This is what “Presumed Guilty” (“Presunto Culpable”) is banking on. The new Mexican documentary filmed by two student/lawyers, exposes the absurdity of the justice system through unprecedented real-time camera access to the courtroom. It has traveled the world in film festivals from Madrid to Dubai, winning 15 awards from audiences and judges, and will premiere in several cities in Mexicoon February 18, to almost as much fanfare as “Harry Potter” and “Tron.” A check of the Cinepoliswebsite, shows “Presunto Culpable” as one of the top trailers, one of the most commented facebook posts, and its logo splashed across the page with the words “If after seeing it, we do not shake up our justice system, then we are all guilty.”(from Alejandro González Iñárritu, director of “Babel,”“21 Grams,”“AmoresPerros” and most recently “Biutiful”).

In “Presunto Culpable,” the dramatic footage of court proceedings for Antonio Zúñiga, a young man falsely accused of murder, is riveting in part for the entertaining cast-perfect roles of the real-life protagonists, and in part because we find that even after all we know, even after all we hear and see and read, we are still surprised to experience just how very, very broken the Mexican justice system is – when we are face to face with it, under the camera lights in real time. “This cannot be,” we say. This premiere marks the first time that Cinepolis, the largest chain of theaters in Mexico, is participating in the distribution of a film; and precisely because they believethat “Presunto Culpable” and its viewers, made angry enough by what they see, have the potential toeffect real change.

Roberto Hernández and Layda Negrete, the young married lawyers/students aiming for their PhDs in Public Policy at Berkeley who filmed “Presunto Culpable” hope to raise enough funding for the movie to send it to every corner of Mexico. They are hopeful that if enough people see the truth exposed by their cameras, they may join the movement for changes in the justice system -- changes like filming interrogations and trials, like having police lineups and using real forensic evidence. Serendipitously timed to coincide with a renewing awareness in Mexico of the possibilities for change (after a 2008 constitutional amendment that allows for oral trials by 2016), if the film achieves the unlikely for a documentary in Mexico, and actually makes a profit, the proceeds will be donated to RENACE, a nonprofit organization well known throughout Mexico for their work in the justice arena. And profit or not, the film has its heart set on change.

For more information on the film and how you can support its mission (and perhaps change the world!) or write This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

The author of this article was falsely incarcerated in Ixcotel State Penitentiary in Oaxaca in the fall of 2003, and is currently living in New York, where she is a volunteer for the cause of “Presunto Culpable.”

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