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Film takes up cause of Mexican woman imprisoned in Texas

January 21, 2009 | 10:28 am

Mi Vida Dentro

Rosa Jimenez, a 26-year-old Mexican woman currently serving a 99-year sentence in a Texas prison, might not have committed a crime, according to Lucía Gajá, 34, the Mexican director of the documentary “Mi Vida Dentro (My Life Inside).”

The film takes aim at the United States criminal-justice system and its treatment of Mexican undocumented female migrants. It is told through the case of Jimenez, who crossed illegally into the United States when she was 17 years old. Clearly on the side of the defendant, who was convicted in 2005, the film combines the words of Jimenez, her defense lawyers and the prosecution to lay out what ends up a chilling depiction.

“Mi Vida Dentro” debuted in Mexico last week in cinemas across the capital, and is the first feature-length film from Gajá, who is a graduate of CUEC, the cinema program of the Autonomous National University of Mexico. It’s also the first Mexican documentary to be distributed by Ambulante, the film festival created by two of Mexico’s most bankable stars, Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna, in 2006.

Gajá says that the film was an attempt to broaden the discussion about immigration in Mexico and the U.S. -- a discussion she feels focuses on border crossings, the deaths of migrants en route, and Mexican men sitting on death row.

“I felt that it was necessary to talk about the women who cross over, and also what it’s like for a Mexican woman to be in a prison in the U.S.," Gajá said. “They lose contact with their families and many [of their families in Mexico] will never be able to get a visa to visit their daughters in prison.”

During the filming of the documentary, the young filmmaker saw what she calls the “double incarceration” of Mexican female migrants in U.S. prisons, caused by a lack of knowledge of the language and culture as well as isolation from their families.

“When women are in that maximum security prison they are only allowed one five-minute phone call every six months,”  Gajá said.

The case against Jimenez stems from the death of 2-year-old Brian Gutierrez, who died while she was caring for him one afternoon in 1999. The young boy choked on a wad of paper towels.

Jimenez says the first sign that something was wrong came when the child approached her in the kitchen of her small apartment in Austin, Texas, his hands around his neck and his face red, suffocating.

The prosecution lawyer in the case, Alison Wetzel, on the other hand, argues that the boy’s death was a homicide and accused Jimenez of “holding him down” and stuffing the paper towels into his mouth.

Gajá’s account of events after the boy's death is compelling and, from material presented in the documentary, viewers are drawn to share her conclusion: Jimenez is serving time for a crime she didn’t commit.

Some of the most damning footage is that of Texas forensic specialists and a police detective testifying in court during Jimenez’s trial. All report that there was no physical trauma to the dead boy’s face or neck that would have been there had Jimenez tried to stuff his mouth with paper towels. But when asked their opinion by the prosecution, all three say that they think the death of the boy was no accident and that Jimenez was responsible.

Mi Vida Dentro

“Mi Vida Dentro” is activism through film in the same vein as movies such as "Bajo Juarez,"  released last year in Mexico. It follows, therefore, that the film is subjective. For example, the prosecutor is given no on-air time (the director said that Wetzel failed to return the many calls she made to her office requesting an interview).

Although the mother and other members of Brian Gutierrez’s family appear on film in court, and express doubts about the conviction of Jimenez, they are not featured in any one-on-one interviews.

Gajá explains: “The mother was very upset because of the loss of her child. I didn't want to go up to her to ask her more questions.”

The dead boy’s uncle makes a statement to the court after Jimenez has been found guilty. He apologizes to Jimenez and adds that he has his doubts about the verdict.

“I felt that that testimony in some way summarized what he felt about Rosa,”  Gajá said.

The film includes numerous interviews with the defendant, her husband, mother and defense lawyers.

The director’s camera style might be jarring for some, and the lens often moves from one character to another in the same take, swinging around searching for its subject before settling.

Regardless, the documentary has wowed critics. It was voted the best documentary at the Morelia International Film Festival here in Mexico in 2007, and was an official selection at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival last year (see the film’s websites for a full list of accolades).

But prizes weren’t at the top of Gajá’s objectives  when she started working on the film  back in the year 2000.

She says that besides seeking to raise awareness of Rosa Jimenez’s case in the United States and Mexico, she had another goal.

“I also want to inform the people here in Mexico who head north … that there are complicated and hard situations that happen to Mexicans over there when they confront a language, culture and law system that they don't know.

“Really, living in the U.S is very hard for people who don't speak the language.”

At the time of this interview, Gajá was yet to secure a U.S distribution deal for “Mi Vida Dentro”.

-- Deborah Bonello in Mexico City

Images: Top -- A screen shot from the documentary film "Mi Vida Dentro". Bottom -- Lucía Gajá, director of "Mi Vida Dentro."  Credits:  http://www.mividadentro.com/.

Edited Jan 23rd, 10:30am Mexico City Time. Director's surname.

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