Grad students’ doc on Mexican justice is up for three Emmys

Six years ago, Roberto Hernández and Layda Negrete — two public-policy grad students at UC Berkeley — began shooting video footage inside Mexico’s courtrooms and detention centers in connection with the criminal case of a street vendor accused of first-degree murder.

Presumed Guilty poster

'Presumed Guilty' follows the story of a street vendor accused of first-degree murder.

What the couple witnessed through their lens and would later present online and on screen — the many, sometimes shocking ways that the system tilts in favor of the prosecution — made waves in Mexico and points south and north. Big waves.

The full-fledged documentary — titled “Presunto Culpable” in Spanish — has been aggressively distributed in Mexico by the Cinépolis theater chain, and banned and later unbanned by the courts. As a result of its banning, a short version of the film became hugely popular on YouTube. The two young lawyers did more than 500 interviews, as journalists from large and small outlets probed for the back story on their film. All of which reportedly helped make “Presumed Guilty” the most-viewed documentary in Mexican history.

Roberto Hernandez and Layda Negrete

Roberto Hernández and Layda Negrete

The eye-opening film — which also aired on the PBS independent-film series “POV”  — now has earned a new distinction: three Emmy Award nominations, for best documentary, outstanding investigative journalism (long form) and best research.

Hernández plans to be at the News & Documentary Emmy ceremony at Lincoln Center, Sept. 26, to celebrate — “regardless of the outcome” — along with Cinépolis CEO Alejandro Ramirez and key members of the project. (Negrete, who just gave birth to their second child, will be watching from home.)

The nomination “is, in itself, the prize,” notes Hernández. The day the nominations were announced, “we received a cascade of requests for interviews. Mexican journalists recognize how difficult is to succeed in American TV, one of the most competitive documentary markets in the world.”

To add to the week’s excitement, Mexico City’s XEW-TV channel 2 is scheduled to air “Presunto Cupable” this Saturday, Sept. 24. The doc will be broadcast during prime-time, with an anticipated audience of 13 million.

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.
— Layda Negrete, POV interview

Negrete calls the prime-time airing “the golden goal we envisioned for a film, whose main objective is to maximize audience, not revenues. I’m very excited that Mexicans of all ages in every corner of the country will have access to this content in open television, for free.

“Channel 2 is the very same channel where telenovelas with top ratings are shown,” she adds. “This is simply the best broadcast window we could have dreamt of!”

Meanwhile, the two scholar-lawyer-activists continue to do research aiming to improve their country’s judicial system.

“Once the police arrest you,” Negrete told POV editors, “you are almost certainly going to be convicted without due process.”

Negrete’s doctoral research at the Goldman School of Public Policy focuses on crime victims’ experience of the judicial process. Hernández is studying eyewitness testimony, and how to ensure that it is a more reliable source of evidence bearing on a defendant’s guilt or innocence.

Related information:

Two lawyers with cameras help rehabilitate Mexican ‘justice’ (NewsCenter article, Dec. 2008)
• En español: Dos abogados Mexicanos, con sus cámaras, ayudan a reformar el sistema judicial de su país
Bungled censorship on the silver screen (Economist article, March 2011)
• “Presunto Culpable” website, with trailer