Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

[i]AQ[/i] talks to Diego Luna on documenting Mexico’s human rights abuses.

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Luna arrives at the world premiere of the film [i]Milk[/i] at Castro Theatre in San Francisco. Photograph by Robert Galbraith/Reuters.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Mexican actor Diego Luna, who starred in Y tu mamá también, Milk and Rudo y Cursi, has been spending more time behind the camera since co-founding (with Gael García Bernal and director Pablo Cruz) CANANA films in 2003. In addition to producing 12 films (including Luna’s directorial debut, J.C. Chávez), the company partnered with WITNESS, a New York-based nonprofit, in 2007, to bring attention to human rights abuses in Mexico through documentary film. Luna spoke with AQ about the WITNESS-CANANA partnership and using new media as a tool for social justice.

Americas Quarterly: How did you become involved with WITNESS and why were you attracted to the organization?

Diego Luna: CANANA and WITNESS discovered each other when WITNESS partnered with the Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights (CMDPDH). The relationship came naturally because we were focused on distributing documentaries that are similar to the work done by WITNESS.We both thought that the idea of giving power to people to make change through movies and video was noble and intelligent. We [Luna, Pablo Cruz, Gael Garcia Bernal, and Ambulante executive director Elena Fortes] are the main developers of Ambulante [a traveling documentary film festival founded by CANANA in 2006]. [Our] documentaries aim to give Mexicans the opportunity to see, on screen, stories that relate to their lives. These stories force us to see who we are and lead us to engage in debate. Documentaries represent a genre that didn’t until recently have a place in Mexico. The philosophy behind WITNESS is akin to ours, and it was very rewarding to become their voice here in Mexico and promote what they do.

AQ: CANANA trains human rights activists to put their causes on film. Which causes or stories stood out in your mind?

Luna: Obviously in Mexico the abuse of human rights is both absurd and grotesque. We live in a country with a great deal of inequality, where impunity is terrible and the amount of corruption in the judicial process is alarming. One documentary, which is currently being viewed in Mexico, is called Presunto Culpable, and it deeply disturbed me. It is a true story about a young man who spent more than 300 days in jail even though he was innocent. The documentary details the trial, as seen from his point of view. It makes you sick and ashamed.

Statistics show that 80 percent of people in Mexico’s jails were denied the opportunity to stand in front of the judge that convicted them. It makes you think that the few cases that do go to court and have a proper follow-through involve many people who are probably framed. This is due to corruption. We live in a country where the word “justice” means something completely different. It is a great lie.

It’s also a country with terrible inequality. There are a thousand documentaries about past abuses most people have forgotten about. Killings such as the Acteal case in Chiapas [Ed note: the 1997 massacre by unidentified paramilitary forces of 45 people—including women and children—attending a prayer service] are topics I remember from when I was a teenager. I believe that [using] documentary and video as instruments for change is very important—especially in a system where under Mexico’s still-young oral procedures there is no system for taping the trials, leaving official records to the interpretation of the transcriber.

After Presunto Culpable was released, some judges changed their verdict, and the young man is now free. I believe this is what WITNESS is about. There is nothing more terrible than living a case such as this, but [even] worse is losing one’s will to get out, to fight, to set things right and fix life´s path. Video is a great mechanism and vehicle to attain this.

AQ: What have you taken away from your work with WITNESS?

Luna: It’s all about being connected to people who are thinking about similar things as you are, who want to move in the same direction as you. It is important to realize that we can move forward and that our power does not end at what we do, but rather in knowing that we are part of something.

In a general sense, it makes me proud to know that we are carrying out actions within each of our capacities and circumstances with a common goal of working for fairness and equality. A lack of opportunity should not stop people from trying to live better. Our work with WITNESS is part of something much larger. It is about what one does every day, with one’s family, with the people one meets on the street. It is about not losing curiosity about what’s happening to other people. It is the only way to survive in a world that has fallen into a terrible degree of individualism.

AQ: In 2007, WITNESS, CANANA and the CMDPDH teamed up to bring attention to femicide and torture in Ciudad Juarez and Chihuahua. What other themes of social justice should be brought to film?

Luna: The topic of impunity is what has hurt us most. There are many people guilty of terrible crimes who walk free. They continue to operate within the government and in the private sector. There is an absurd tolerance toward delinquency in Mexico. It has to do with the judicial system, and it’s the topic that is absorbing me most right now. [Other issues] include poverty and a general lack of opportunities and access to education, which have demoralized our young people. Until education becomes a priority for the state and the private sector, I don’t see any real potential for change.

AQ: Given the rise in violence in Mexico (according to unofficial statistics, 7,600 people were murdered in 2009 alone), what’s the best way to improve security without compromising human rights?

Luna: Performing a frontal attack on crime doesn’t resolve anything. There is an absurd level of violence due to that lack of opportunity. Because of unemployment, the streets are filled with delinquents. Because of the lack of border controls, many weapons are entering the country. And corruption [shows] that money rules above all else. This is a country where many underage children work. That says a lot. With few opportunities, social resentment becomes an issue. And that contributes to the rise of quick and easy businesses. The problems we face are not unique to us. We are part of something much bigger. There has to be a market like the U.S. to fuel the situation. The guns have to be coming from somewhere. Money is moving and changing hands and not only in this country. Right now we are living the worst of it.

AQ: How are the human rights challenges that your generation faces different than those of older generations?

Luna: They’re cyclical. Some Colombians say that we are currently living what they went through some years ago. [Yet] we are also awakening. Mexico is a country living a type of adolescence; it’s a teenager. We are discovering our own personality. Mexico is definitely a more alert country than it was a few years back.

AQ: How do you imagine Mexico in 10 years? Will new technologies help to combat any of these problems?

Luna: Technology will definitely help younger generations to be more informed and more connected. But what’s most important is that people want to connect, understand and participate.


Matthew Aho is a consultant in the corporate practice group at Akerman LLP.

Tags: Diego Luna, Human Rights in Mexico, WITNESS
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