SXSW FILM 2010
By Don Simpson | March 11, 2010
Directors: Roberto Hernández, Geoffrey Smith
It would not be out of the ordinary for me to begin a review like this one with some politically-biased ranting about how by judging by this film’s title (Presumed Guilty) it could very easily be about the judicial system in the United States. I’ll hold my tongue this time this time, because I do not want anyone to think that I am making a direct comparison between the judicial system in the United States and the judicial system in Mexico. (No matter how screwed up I believe the judicial system in the United States is, the judicial system in Mexico is screwed up tenfold…maybe even a hundred fold.)
Directed by Roberto Hernandez and Geoffrey Smith, Presumed Guilty can easily be seen as a sequel to Hernandez’s previous documentary – El Túnel, a 20-minute film about the absence of due process fundamentals in the Mexican judicial system. We are bombarded by staggering statistics such as: 93% of defendants never see a judge; 93% of inmates are never shown arrest warrant; 95% of verdicts are guilty; 92% of verdicts are based on no physical evidence. It was also discovered that Mexican policemen are rewarded for the amount of arrests they make and any court official can preside over the court hearings (not just judges).
Presumed Guilty focuses specifically on Jose Antonio Zuniga Rodriguez (a.k.a. “Tono”), whom we first find break dancing in prison. In 2005, Tono was incarcerated; accused of killing someone he did not even know, who was never linked to him in any way. At the time of his arrest, Tono had no idea regarding what the case was about or why he was accused. He also had no idea of what his rights were; Tono was told repeatedly by the arresting officer “you did it and don’t play dumb.”
But, on the day of the murder, Tono was working at his market stand where he sold video games and fixed computers from 10am to 6pm. There are countless witnesses that can attest to his whereabouts, but those witnesses were never questioned by the police or prosecutors. Tono was sentenced for 20 years in prison, despite the fact that the prosecutor never proved that Tono fired a gun – his gunpowder test was negative.
Tono believed that his arrest was fate. He had recorded a gangster rap-styled music video (Tono provides the soundtrack for Presumed Guilty) about murdering someone in cold blood (the song turned out to be a premonition – could this song be the reason Tono was targeted by the police?). Also, a week before he was arrested for homicide, Tono found himself heartbroken (we’re not sure why) and he prayed to God: “Kill me or put me in jail. Do as you will but take me away” – his prayers were answered by big brother (the Mexican police) rather than God.
Tono resides in a small prison cell with 20 other inmates – all young men, most of whom are presumably innocent. He sleeps in “the tomb” – a cramped space located under a bunk bed on the cold concrete floor. Tono’s girlfriend must work in order for Tono to survive in prison (78% of inmates are fed by their families); she faithfully delivers food to Tono, despite exposing herself to recurring sexual misconduct by some of the prison guards (they repeatedly lift her shirt and feel her up).
Upon researching Tono’s case, the filmmakers discover that Tono’s lawyer was not adequately licensed – which, luckily for Tono, proves to be adequate grounds for a retrial (a retrial that Tono has to wait an additional three months to occur). The retrial would be in front of same judge, but this time the trial would be videotaped by Hernandez and Smith. A respected and qualified attorney, Rafael Heredia, is brought on (pro bono) as Tono’s Defense Attorney.
Presumed Guilty is by no means an easy film to watch with content that is simultaneously frustrating and heartbreaking. Nonetheless, Hernandez and Smith do a tremendous job with the material, conveying it flawlessly in a straightforward and easy to understand manner. Most importantly, Tono’s innocence is proved beyond a shadow of a doubt. The question remains: is the film convincing enough for the Mexican judicial system to release Tono? (If the answer to that question is yes, I can not think of clearer proof of a documentary’s success.)