Judge attempts to block screening of documentary about Antonio Zúñiga, who was twice wrongly convicted of murder
An attempt to ban a Mexican documentary about a young man wrongly convicted of murder twice has created a box-office hit, a pirate DVD sensation and a judicial and political minefield.
Released last month, Presumed Guilty was promoted as an exposé of the Kafkaesque world of Mexican justice that picks on poor people who can't afford good lawyers, and almost always convicts them.
The film has proven popular with audiences. Then a judge ordered regulators to ban cinema screenings and interest in the movie soared. Amid the cries of censorship, distributors Cinépolis promised to keep the reels rolling until they were formally notified of the order, at which point they would "consider our options". Audiences had topped 500,000 before last weekend, in which many multiplexes screened the film more often than most blockbusters.
Presumed Guilty also took the street by storm. "I can't remember anything like this," a pirate DVD vendor called Alberto said of the 70 copies he sold on Saturday. The King's Speech, his second biggest hit, sold that much over the week. "Maybe Spider-Man 3 did as well, but I'm not even sure about that."
Presumed Guilty follows a young, articulate and likeable computer software street vendor Antonio Zúñiga who was picked up by Mexico City police in December 2005 and charged with the murder of a man he had never seen.
Six months later a judge sentenced him to 20 years, disregarding witnesses who insisted he was at his market stall miles away, a test showing he hadn't fired a gun and the absence of a motive. A single witness, the 17-year-old cousin of the victim, claimed he saw Zúñiga fire the gun.
By that time two committed young lawyers had got involved. They discovered that Zúñiga's public defender had falsified his credentials and secured a retrial. They got permission to film the few public parts of the trial, most of which is based on paper-pushing behind closed doors.
At one point Zúñiga cleverly cross-examines the prosecution's only witness until he withdraws his testimony. For a moment liberty seems like just a formality, but instead another 20-year sentence comes down.
Last week's order to suspend screenings stems from an invasion of privacy complaint from the witness, although many find it hard to believe that a primary-school drop-out would have instigated such a process on his own.
Cinemagoers questioned by the Guardian assumed the government, the judges or the police were behind it. "They don't want us to see how bad things are," said Marco Antonio Suarez as he queued to see the film.
Mindful of the potential political fallout, deputy interior minister, Hector Villarreal, called the judicial order "ambiguous, confusing and dark", and began stalling over it.
Edited with the help of Geoffrey Smith, acclaimed for his own documentary The English Surgeon, the film is also an uplifting tale about beating the odds, mingled with a love story. All to the soundtrack of Zúñiga's own rap performances.
The conviction was eventually overturned in 2008 after the filmmakers persuaded the judges hearing the appeal to watch the videos. Zúñiga was immediately released.
"The police needed somebody who was guilty, and I was passing by," he said in one radio interview in February in which he described the film as a wake-up call. "What happened to me was partly my fault because I didn't know my rights. Most people don't."
Jo Tuckman in Mexico City
Monday 7 March 2011 19.06 GMT
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