Philippines: Paco Larrañaga and six others risk spending their lives in prison, based on a verdict that this film suggests is a miscarriage of justice. Will this film help free Paco? The directors tell DoX about their work on the film.
Imagine fifteen years of your life – and counting – in which you have been imprisoned, away from your home, away from your family and friends, your young life abruptly interrupted. And you are innocent of the charges against you. In 1997, on the island of Cebu in the Philippines, two sisters, both in their early 20s, went missing. To this day, their bodies have never been recovered. On the evening of their disappearance, 19-year-old Paco Larrañaga, a culinary arts student, was hundreds of miles away in Manila at a party with friends. Nonetheless, he – along with a group of other young men who were nowhere near the scene of the crime – was summarily rounded up, arrested and charged with the rapes and murders of the sisters.
Paco Larrañaga, in particular, was essentially tried and convicted by the local Filipino tabloid press before his trial was over; the court of law sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole and without letting him testify in his own defense. After having his sentence transferred, Larrañaga is currently incarcerated in a maximumsecurity prison in Spain. Paco’s father is Spanish and the family asked the Spanish government for help when a death sentence was handed down by the Philippine courts in 2004. Human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International, Fair Trials International, and the United Nations, as well as the Government of Spain, have all unequivocally gone on record as saying that Paco’s case has been a gross miscarriage of justice. Whatever the outcome of their fight to free him, it is almost certain that he will never be able to return to his homeland and live in peace. In that same year (1997), Michael Collins moved to New York City after graduating from art school in upstate New York where he studied computer animation, photography and video. A few years later, he met partner, Marty Syjuco, a relative of Paco’s by marriage. Syjuco knew very little about the case at the time; once in a while, a few cloudy details would emerge about something that had happened to his brother’s wife’s younger sibling. In 2004, when Paco’s life sentence was elevated to the death penalty, Syjuco’s brother, Jamie, panicked and helpless, asked the two men for assistance. Collins explains:
«it is a filmmaker’s imperative to create a work of such power that viewers walk out of the film unable to shake off the story»
“Jamie asked me to create an animation for a website that would illustrate some of the injustices that had happened during the trial. I needed to learn about the case, to discover whether I felt that Paco was innocent, or not. I asked him to send me some information. He sent me a letter from the ‘Unheard35,’ the witnesses who weren’t allowed to testify who were with Paco the night of the girls’ disappearance. This is what they had started to call themselves. Point by point, the letter describes what happened, whom they were with in Manila, the photographs that were taken. They had gone to court and the judge did not let them testify. They had gone to the media, but no one in the press cared to listen to them. And there’s Paco sitting on death row. It was so heartbreaking, the way they described in detail the injustice of it all. Paco was exactly my age – he was 19 when he was arrested, and this was seven years later. For the past seven years of his life he had been in prison; seven years before that moment, I had moved myself to New York City.” Reading this letter was the genesis of a long journey for Collins and Syjuco in making their award-winning feature-length documentary, Give Up Tomorrow: “We just knew that this story had to be told. It was mind-blowing, like a Kafka novel, the kind of thing you couldn’t even dream up.”
The duo’s debut feature film is currently screening at international festivals around the globe. This past July, the film played as part of the Human Rights Dox competition at Dokufest in Prizren, Kosova. One of the first things they discussed with DOX was how important it was, at the outset, for them to craft a meticulous and deeply researched film that would help shed light on Paco’s case. However, they emphasized that what was even more important was to make a good movie, one that would supply intense emotional depth and a profound connection for viewers. They knew, even as novice filmmakers, that “by making a good film, the truth would emerge and that people would align themselves with the cause and want to fight this injustice the same way we did.” It’s all well and good to bandy about the term “films that change the world,” but in the face of such a cruel twist of fate that happens to involve a real flesh-and-blood human being and his family, it is a filmmaker’s imperative to not only craft an airtight case with all the pertinent details intact and crystal clear, but to create a work of such power that viewers walk out of the film unable to shake off the story. There are some films that have had a profound impact on the culture on which they’ve focused, and Give Up Tomorrow, will prove to be one of them. Not only because of the distinct intention on the part of the filmmakers to bring an injustice to light, affect laws, forward certain ideologies, and generally change the course of history through their film’s impact, but also due to their intention to make an outstanding film. For, in essence, it is only this expertly crafted document that can garner worldwide attention and, possibly, instigate change in a timely manner for a man who has been wrongfully imprisoned.
A large part of what makes Give Up Tomorrow so resonant is not necessarily the portrayal of its main protagonist, as charismatic and powerful a screen presence as Paco is. It is the two women to whom Collins ultimately gives intense focus, Paco’s mother, Mrs. Larrañaga, and the mother of the disappeared girls, Mrs. Chong. This choice was a very smart one, for through the portrayals of these women, the film finds its most powerful emotional through-line. The two mothers become parallel touchstones, not just in terms of Filipino culture, but also the bizarre and surreal circumstances in which they find themselves, as they and their families move through immense personal trauma over the course of many years. It firmly grounds the story in the universal realm of family.
However, in trying to achieve a delicate balance between good filmmaking and social justice imperatives, one can only deal with pure emotion for so long. Sooner or later, it all needs to be contextualized so that it doesn’t devolve into pure soap opera. Collins told DOX: “That was definitely the biggest challenge – how to have both a complex plot-driven film, and a characterdriven film. That’s when we went back to our experiences shooting in the Philippines, those moments when I’d come home after shooting with these women and be emotionally exhausted.
They were so victimized, both the Chong and Larrañaga families. If we’ve allowed people to experience walking in their shoes just for a bit, then we’ve done our job.” And will this film help free Paco, as the filmmakers hope it will? Two weeks before coming to the Balkans, Collins and Syjuco visited the now 34-year-old man in Spain, with a copy of the film in hand. After viewing it, Paco turned to them and said: “That film is going to get me out of here.” He also told the filmmakers that the previous night, after he had watched their film, had been the best night’s sleep he’d had since his arrest fifteen years ago.
Could we go even further and say that, perhaps, other cases like Paco’s might get a second look because of this film? “We wanted to make a film that would sustain itself over years, one that would keep being watched. In terms of helping other people in similar predicaments, it is our belief that it absolutely can” says Collins. “It’s about the media and what happens when it goes unchecked, when it doesn’t do its job, which is mainly that of safeguarding human rights. It’s about what happens when the courts are corrupt and the police force doesn’t have the means to conduct a proper investigation. When there’s corruption running rampant in those areas, then none of us is safe.”
© EDN/ModernTimes (previously published in DOX Magazine).