Human Rights Watch Film Festival 2010

'Presumed Guilty'

by Chris Barsanti

9 June 2010

Guilt or innocence is almost beside the point in this stunning documentary, which pulls back the curtain on a Mexican legal system that seems more comedy of oddity than system for dispensing justice.

The form of Roberto Hernandez and Geoffrey Smith’s documentary is a well-utilized one. In this instance, the subject is Tunio Zuniga, a young man arrested in Mexico City in 2005, charged with the murder of a man he claimed he never knew, much less shot to death. He is then sentenced to twenty years in jail on the most arbitrary of evidence. The work seems pretty cut out for Hernandez and Smith, as they follow Zuniga’s fight to get his case re-heard: show us that this unjustly accused man is innocent.

Now, it’s not that this would be an unwelcome subject for a film. A miscarriage of justice like this is a horrific mistake whether it happens once or a thousand times. But what elevates Hernandez and Smith’s film from its sometimes-sketchy beginnings (some chintzy animation and a wandering, gap-filled narrative) to a different realm is its wider take on the system itself. That, and the baffling manner in which Zuniga’s new trial is handled, a procedure seemingly de rigueur in Mexico.

The “courtroom” is a tiny little space, little more than a glorified office cubicle, into which the prosecutor, judge, witness, and Zuniga’s defense team are packed cheek-to-jowl while Zuniga himself (a mild-mannered sort who relaxes in prison by breakdancing) has to watch the proceeding from behind a barred window. It seems as though the fix is in, with the judge issuing frequent orders by fiat, seemingly for no other reason than to stymie the defense, and the prosecution simply reciting the baseless accusations from the original trial.

This whole circus would be shocking in most countries, but in a nation where over ninety percent of defendants never even see a judge, and only about five percent are found innocent, it’s par for the course. If there weren’t a man’s life at stake, the strange, ritualized proceedings would have avant-garde, Borgesian comedy stamped all over them.

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