My Friend, the Murderer: an Ethical Filmmaking Dilemma

Jade Porter filmed Mario Saenz for her documentary Concrete Futuro. But now the skate star is in the spotlight for very different reasons.

I received a comment on a group of photos I posted on Instagram. The comment was from a young woman who did not follow me, and who I did not follow. The photos were from the many trips I had made to Mexico for a documentary film I directed. One particular photo was of Mario Saenz, a famed Mexican skateboarder. He was standing with fans who had approached him while we were at a skatepark in Mexico City. They had asked for a photo and I took it, proudly. The comment posted on the photo read, “A film with a murder[er] in it, bravo.” With the emoji of hands clapping.

I have spent the past four years making Concrete Futuro, a documentary about the emerging skateboard scene in Mexico. When I started, for me, the film was about a change in conversation. I wanted to talk about anything else regarding Mexico. Anything besides violence, drugs or immigration. The Mexico I knew was very different from any of that. The people I knew there liked living there. In fact, they had no plans to move to the United States, but instead had plans to expand their businesses, or start a business, grow their families and pursue their interests at school. Possibly travel to Europe and see the world. They were athletes, academics, entrepreneurs, mothers, fathers, friends.

Mario Saenz

When I first met Mario Saenz – when we flew to D.F. to film his story – he was on top of his game. He was young, still in his twenties. He had a son he took great care of, who he was guiding toward manhood. He had a nice house for his family, a nice car, multiple skate shops throughout Mexico, a skate team with the very best riders in the country, and he had just opened a large factory to produce affordable, quality skate shoes for his company, RID. He was also a professional skateboarder backed by large brands and adored by many.

Now he is a man accused of murder. Hiding out somewhere in Mexico. Awaiting the opportunity to defend himself.

I received a call from him late one night, from an unknown number. He did not reveal his location. He told me the situation was very complicated and that the justice system in Mexico had not done its job. Which didn’t surprise me, given my own experiences dealing with the Mexican government and its history of corruption.

Mario said that on the night of the murder of this woman – a woman who was his friend, who he had been photographed spending time together with, smiling, at bars partying, just before her death – he was at a police station. He said he had hit a pothole while driving to get pizza. In Mexico, if you can prove your car was damaged by the road, the city will pay you back on the spot. He told me he had his car towed – the same car that was supposedly at the scene of the crime – to a police station to be examined. He told me that because of this, there was no way he could have been with the woman at the hotel room where she was killed. Practically beheaded, in fact.

The authorities say that, based on information from eyewitness accounts and security camera footage, Mario and the woman checked into the hotel around midnight. They bought beers and went to the room. Sometime around 3 a.m., Mario told the front desk that he would be leaving and that the woman would stay in the room till morning. When the woman did not check out, the hotel cleaning staff entered the room to find her dead in the bathtub. Hotel staff recall seeing Mario with the woman, and have identified his vehicle. The news reports claim she was his girlfriend, which Mario denies. Mario also denies being at the hotel at all, and says when his team requested the hotel’s security camera footage from that evening (which allegedly shows him there), they were told the cameras were not working.

Believe women. That’s the message that we as women in the industry have chosen to follow with unwavering resolution. Believe the women that come forward with harrowing tales of coercion, exploitation, rape. We believe them because if we don’t, they won’t come forward. We believe them because we as a society previously chose to turn a blind eye to the corruption and gross abuse of power just beneath the surface – and sometimes, quite frankly, in plain sight – of a massive money-making and star-producing enterprise.

But what if the woman can’t come forward? What if the woman was brutally murdered in a hotel room? What if her family and friends believe the accused is responsible? They call it femicide. A domestic situation between a boyfriend and girlfriend. By a man held up by society to be powerful. To be influential. But what if we can’t hear her plea?

This is the dilemma I’m facing as a filmmaker, and as someone that believes women, no matter what. For instance, I was really dismayed when Lena Dunham defended a man she works with against a woman who accused him of rape, claiming she had insider information the alleged victim had previously tried to extort him. Lena retracted her statement and apologized when it was proven that the woman was not after money, but after the truth. I would hate to find myself in a situation where I’m defending a man because he is a friend. But that’s exactly where I find myself today.

Mario Saenz with Jade Porter

Mario Saenz is a friend. I lived with him in his home in Mexico for the first three months of 2017. I had moved to Mexico to improve my Spanish and to get away from Trump. I couldn’t bear to be in the same place as him while he was being inaugurated – but that’s another story. I spent every day with Mario. I know that he gets up in the morning no matter the hangover or the late night, and he makes coffee and breakfast for him and his son, if his son is with him. He then gets to work. Making calls. Driving to his shops, working on shoe designs, skatepark designs. And then he heads to a park and skates for hours. Filming clips for brands, which he then watches back home so he can study himself and improve.

There were women around. If I observed any particular behavior about Mario, I would say he is a womanizer. I don’t know many famous, good-looking, single men in their twenties who aren’t. There were a lot of women. I have WhatsApp voice messages from him – that was our way of communication because he preferred to talk instead of text – that could be damning, I guess. About his love of women, his addiction to them, his insatiable need to be in them. Once he made me watch a video of a girl having sex with another man. It was a girl he had been sleeping with, and she had sent the video to him. Nothing I cared to watch, but as he drove maniacally down a Mexico City thruway, he put his phone on the dashboard and laughed hysterically, yelling, “Watch him cum on her! Watch, watch!”

The night Mario called me to assert his innocence, I have to admit that it was nice to hear his voice. I missed my friend. I felt privileged to get the call, to get the information firsthand, because to me it meant he valued our friendship as well. The next morning, though, I felt unsure of our friendship, of how well I actually know him. How well do we know anyone? When the serial killer Robert Lee Yates lived in my quiet, predominantly Christian, mostly white suburban neighborhood, everyone who knew him said he was such a nice guy. Even his own family couldn’t believe he had committed such heinous crimes. Can I still call Mario my friend, if I’m not convinced either way of his guilt or innocence?

Concrete Futoro is now finished and I have submitted it to film festivals. I’m elated, and so incredibly proud of the work, of my team, of all involved, including every character in the film. However, I did question whether we should take Mario out of the film. Should I feature a man suspected of murdering a young woman who has no voice to tell her own story? Or should I let the film be what it is and tell the story of a young man who was leading the skateboarding industry in Mexico – because my film is about just that, skateboarding?

It’s possible that keeping Mario in my film gives him power and validates his success while taking the focus away from his demons and the possible crime he has committed. But if I erase him from the film, am I denying his existence and his contributions to the skateboard world, and am I denying that this horrid situation exists at all? I feel it’s my duty as a documentary filmmaker to show the world the Mario that I recorded. And I think I owe that to the Mario that I know, the one I would call my friend.

Again, I do not know if he is guilty. I write that, and as I do the words ring out loudly in my head: believe women. Believe women.

Jade Porter is a filmmaker currently living in Brooklyn, NY. Her directorial debut, Concrete Futuro, a feature documentary about the rising skateboard culture in Mexico and how it is creating change, will premiere in 2017. She is moving to Mexico City the end of December and plans to explore film production and commercial work in Mexico.