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.
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