POV: How did you come to make Presumed Guilty
Layda Negrete: Presumed Guilty is almost an accidental documentary – it wasn’t meant to be a documentary. Roberto and I had been doing statistical research into criminal justice in Mexico, where the conviction rate is higher than 80 percent nationally; in Mexico City, the rate is 95 percent. Once the police arrest you, you are almost certainly going to be convicted without due process.
Once we discovered this information, we felt compelled to share it with policymakers, but we realized that statistics were not going to be able to move policy forward. So Roberto started using a camera to capture images to support our research findings. We created a 20-minute piece called El Túnel that was broadcast in Mexico on public television, and after the broadcast, people from around Mexico started calling us from jail, asking for help. One of those callers was Antonio, or Toño.
Roberto Hernández: Toño and his friends were desperate. He had been convicted, his sentence had been confirmed and they were hoping that we could do something about his case. Frankly, at first, we didn’t think we could do much. When we first met Toño, we saw very little opportunity to intervene and prove his innocence. But we got lucky.
Negrete: Toño’s case was a routine homicide investigation for the Mexican police. It matched what we had been studying statistically, and it was also a story that could illustrate what was wrong with the system. We started studying Toño’s file and discovered typical human rights violations and due process violations. But we also discovered that Toño had been represented by a person who had forged a license to practice law. That was a piece of luck, because it opened up the possibility of a retrial. The documentary takes off from there.
POV: You described the film as an “accidental documentary.” When did you decide to turn Toño’s story into a film?
Hernández: We started filming Toño because, although the court records and police records are lies, if you’re not able to generate an alternative to the official record, then you can’t prove that someone is innocent. At that point, we weren’t really thinking about telling a story. But at some point, Toño stopped being just a victim of an injustice and became a human being on camera. He told us personal things, his own love story, and explained why at one point he even wished to be in prison. We found out that he liked to break-dance! So that personal story took over, and I fell in love with the way Toño was dealing with his situation and struggling against the system as a person.
POV: What were some of your biggest challenges in making this film?
Negrete: There was an ethical dilemma to using Toño’s story. We were trying to show a general problem in the film, but we were also dealing with Toño’s destiny. When we got a retrial for Toño, we put five cameras in the courtroom. We didn’t know what would happen. We could have enraged the judge by filming a documentary, and it was not clear if being filmed was going to be beneficial for Toño’s case.
POV: What was the reaction of those in the courtroom and in the prison to your cameras?
Negrete: Nobody was pleased to have the cameras. The kind of access that we were able to achieve from the prison and from the court was incredible, but the subjects being filmed were not happy about it. The first time we entered the courtroom with our cameras, everyone started yelling in a panic. In a way, my favorite character in the film is the camera; its presence has incredible importance in a system that is corrupt and that is used to operating in the shadows. The camera illuminates so many things, and there’s a hope that the illumination it brings will also bring change.
In Mexico, the actual litigation system makes no sense, and it makes no sense to be an attorney – you cannot advance justice under the rules and practices set in place. That’s why I always think that the camera is a weapon in the courtroom. A journalist once wrote an article about Roberto and me and used the expression “those lawyers with cameras.” We loved that, because we’re not filmmakers; we’re just lawyers with cameras.
POV: Were there any other challenges that you faced?
Hernández: Another challenge was going through the 300 hours of footage we collected over two and a half years of filming. There were so many stories in there about Toño – how he was mistreated by the police, the bizarre circus that goes on when you are held as a detainee in a Mexico City prosecutor’s office — and most of those stories are not in the film. We had to figure out which footage to use.
Layda and I are lawyers; we are not filmmakers. I was trying tell a story and looking for a structure for it, and I was really fortunate to meet people from the film world — Geoffrey Smith, Martha Sosa and Yissel Ibarra – who really helped us shape the story and tell it in a powerful way.
POV: How did you come to work with Geoffrey Smith, and what was your collaboration like?
Hernández: Back in 2008, we had a rough cut of the film. I knew we had a powerful story, but I also knew it was somewhat lacking in structure and fluency. I realized that I had reached the limits of my own skills, and both Layda and I were exhausted from the legal battle. We showed the rough cut film as part of the sidebar of an international film festival that had given us money, and the film received sixth place for the audience award. So I thought that we had hit a topic that everybody could relate to and maybe it was worth investing one last stretch of effort.
I started re-cutting the film on my own, but it was just so difficult. I was exhausted. And then Martha Sosa found Geoffrey when he was visiting Mexico City, and she showed him our rough cut. Geoffrey was confident that we could tell the story in a better way, and he suggested we work together for a week. We started working together, and of course we didn’t finish in one week; it took about two and a half months to re-cut the film. It was a very satisfying experience to work with Geoffrey, and it was just so generous of him to put his name behind the film, elevate it and help it get seen.
POV: When Toño walks out of the prison and into the arms of his family, the viewer gets a fantastic sense of relief. But one is also left wondering how many more men like Toño are inside that prison, and how long it will take them to find justice. How did it feel to win this particular case but know that there’s still such an entrenched problem in your country?
Negrete: There are many others who remain in prison, and that’s why we feel this movie is so important. It’s not about a single, exceptional case. It’s about a very typical case. When Toño allowed us to film his trial, he said, “I want people to know what happened to me and I don’t want this to happen to anyone else.”
Hernández: I am very optimistic that we can change the system. The problem with the system is not this judge or those policemen. It’s the pressures on all of them. If we can understand those pressures, remove them and change them, create more incentives to reward good police work and fair trials, then we can change the system.