While trial documentary Presumed Guilty’s narrative arc is genuinely compelling and heartrending in its depiction of an innocent man’s struggle to prove his innocence, the film at large only serves to reinforce the hopelessness of his case. Tono Zuniga, the film’s everyman and exhibit A in its case against the corruption of the Mexican judicial system, was sentenced to 20 years in prison despite the fact that there was no physical evidence incriminating him. Presumed Guilty builds up to the new trial that will hopefully acquit him, but while filmmaker and law student Robert Hernandez had unprecedented access to the court and was able to film Zuniga’s new trial, the deciding motions in Zuniga’s case weren’t filmed. The real make-or-break actions were decided off-camera for reasons that are never understood, let alone even speculated on by Hernandez or Zuniga’s public defender, though there’s a vague hint from one of the three judges that decided his appeal as to what decided his case.
Whether the system works or not at this point is apparently irrelevant, a concept that totally undermines the film’s premise: that the criminal process in Mexico is corrupt and that it needs reform now. Sympathetic though Zuniga’s plight may be, Hernandez really just doesn’t try to make a case by film’s end, essentially giving up in the hopes that the emotional effect of the story’s finale will be enough to give viewers a sense of closure. It’s a telling sign that the section at the film’s website, which viewers are urged to visit before the film’s end credits roll, marked “What Can I Do?,” has no information available save for a placeholder that reads: “Coming soon!”
Zuniga’s case is never in doubt, so that’s not an issue that Hernandez has problems presenting. He has several eyewitnesses while the prosecution has one, who only fingered Zuniga in the third draft of his statement; he was spotted at what is an estimated 40-minute walk away from the crime scene; and the ballistics reports say that he did not fire a gun that night. Worse still, Zuniga claims he was abused by the officers that detained him and, during his time in jail, he was crammed into a cell holding 20 people, sleeping under a bunk bed where cockroaches frequently crawled all over him. Despite the fact that Hernandez and co-director Geoffrey Smith, director of the exceptionally focused humanist doc The English Surgeon, present the inconsistencies of the case’s official documents like they were hosting an episode of Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? (lots of cheesy images of magnifying glasses zooming in on highlighted sections of computer-generated facsimiles of documents), they don’t need to work very hard to make Zuniga sympathetic. The facts of his case speak for themselves.
That having been said, Zuniga’s new trial is grueling. None of the procedure of the trial is explained, making the escalating and seemingly hopeless interrogation sessions Zuniga and his lawyer get into with the police officers that arrested Zuniga and the prosecution’s only witness that much more galling. There are statistics peppered before and after the trial, like “95% of verdicts are convictions,” and “92% of convictions are not based on any physical evidence.” But there’s nothing about why the retrial is mostly just a review of the prosecution’s witnesses and not an interrogation of the new evidence, Zuniga’s witnesses, or even the myriad reasons why his arrest and conviction were illegal. Hernandez wants to keep viewers unsure of what they’re watching and certain only of their anger. He succeeds.
In light of the second trial’s results, Presumed Guilty is not only a right-headed but manipulative document, but an infuriatingly cruel viewing experience. Watching footage of Zuniga’s trial at such great length, especially when he’s ineffectually staring down the prosecution’s sole eyewitness and begging him to reconsider his statement, is the ultimate voyeuristic experience. A man’s future is at stake, so watching slack-jawed as it slips away from him will naturally make your blood boil. But it also makes you feel dirty for watching and for wanting the kind of outcome we know he deserves but is certain not to come.
Zuniga’s ultimate fate is decided after that footage was shot, but still, the fact remains that Hernandez is using Zuniga as a poster child for why the system doesn’t work. Regardless of the results of the case, no real resolution is brought to the film’s provocative statistics and we still have no idea why what we watched mattered beyond the filmmakers’ blind faith in the idea that raising awareness of Zuniga’s struggle is a step toward reform. But the fact that we don’t know what we’re looking at beyond a point any more than we know where the statistics quoted throughout the film come from makes Presumed Guilty inept and maybe even unethical.
Presumed Guilty will play on June 24 as part of this year’s Human Rights Watch Film Festival. For more information click here.