11/07/2013 06:37 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

'Presumed Guilty' -- A Documentary Indicting a Corrupt Judicial System Is Now Its Victim

From its very inception Presumed Guilty (Presunto Culpable), Mexico's highest grossing documentary, has been entangled with Mexico's judiciary system. It follows the case of Toño Zúñiga, a young man "presumed guilty" of a murder which he has always claimed he did not commit. This exposé played a crucial role in reversing his sentence by showing, among other things, that the case was based on the questionable testimony of one eyewitness, and revealing the corruption and indifference to justice within Mexico's judiciary.

This July, almost five years after its successful premier, Presumed Guilty started facing new lawsuits, demanding over 200 million dollars in damages from the producers, its exhibitors and the distributors of its DVDs. The official accusers this time are Víctor Daniel Reyes Bravo (the supposed eyewitness) and his family, who claim that they have been targeted because of the documentary; the family of the murder victim, who complain about his corpse being shown in the film (an image that had been provided by Mexico City's prosecutors); and police officer José Manuel Ortega Saavedra, who claims he was harassed at a restaurant by people who recognized him from the film. However, the producers have insisted that these trials have been manipulated by the judiciary as "revenge" and as an effort to silence them. Beyond the hundreds of millions of dollars of possible settlements, the lawsuits have prevented the movie's distribution in theaters and DVD.

The film premiered at the Amsterdam International Film Festival on November 2008. With the support of Latino Public Broadcasting, it aired on PBS's POV on July 2010. This showing earned POV an Emmy for Outstanding Investigative Journalism. By then the film had already received awards at the San Francisco International Film Festival, the East End Film Festival of London, the Guadalajara International Film Festival, DocumentaMadrid, Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival and the Morelia International Film Festival.

As PBS' press release pointed out in 2010, the documentary's implications went far beyond the specific Zúñiga case:

In groundbreaking documentary, two young lawyers reveal a system where the burden of proof is turned on its head and 95% of Mexico City trials end in guilty verdicts.

These disturbing revelations put the film at the center of Mexico's political debate. It premiered in the country on February 18, 2011, and by early March it was ordered off the screens. The justification was a lawsuit presented by the supposed eyewitness, Reyes Bravo, a prominent character who claimed that he had not granted permission to be filmed for the documentary. He was the only alleged witness of his cousin's murder, and Zúñiga's twenty year conviction hinged on his testimony. The film, which would become Mexico's most successful documentary, had already grossed around 1.5 million dollars at the time of the injunction. Layda Negrete and

Roberto Hernández, the film's producers, accused the government of manipulating Reyes Bravo to censor the film. Within a week copies had gone viral on the Internet, prompting Hernández to request for them to be removed. He thanked the solidarity of people who distributed his film, but claimed that he wanted to solve the question of censorship in the courts. By March 9 the injunction was lifted and the film went on to break audience records.

It is ironic, but perhaps not surprising, that as Carmen Aristegui points out the system revealed by "Presumed Guilty" is again targeting the film itself. Beyond the case's heavy financial repercussions, this new trial raises many of the same disturbing questions that the documentary addressed: the lack of transparency and judicial corruption.

At the beginning of these trials the film's producers asked to have the possibility of filming the court proceedings, a right now limited to the Judicial Power. As Layda Negrete told Milenio, this request is not only in the defendants' interest, but in that of the country as a whole, as whatever happens to Presumed Guilty affects all Mexicans who expect a transparent legal process, free expression and serious political journalism. Questions are also raised when judges indicted by the documentary are now in charge of running a trial against it.

Despite the prohibition to exhibit the film in Mexico, the Internet still makes it available:

PRESUNTO CULPABLE from Rodolfo Bernal on Vimeo.

The film has been seen by millions of people who acclaimed it when it came out. One would hope that they now have the same enthusiasm in carefully following this case and making sure that the film's producers do not fall victim to the system they so courageously condemned.

This is a revised and expanded version of a post which originally appeared on