In 1997, Paco Larrañaga was arrested for the murder of sisters Marijoy and Jacqueline Chiong on a provincial island in the Philippines. Though 35 witnesses could attest to his obvious innocence, Paco and 6 co-defendants were found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment. Their sentence was raised to death by lethal injection in 2004 until the Spanish government (Paco was a dual citizen of Spain and the Philippines) intervened and helped abolish the Philippine death penalty entirely. Over the next 13 years, his case became the highest profile in the nation's history, and the focal point in a far-reaching exposé of gross miscarriage of justice. Paco spent 12 years in a Philippine prison before being transferred to Spain in 2009. He remains imprisoned there today.
In 2004, filmmakers Michael Collins and Marty Syjuco quit their jobs and flew to the Philippines to tell Paco's story in Give Up Tomorrow.
Tribeca: Tell us a little about Give Up Tomorrow.
Michael Collins: It’s a story of a young man in the Philippines who was wrongfully accused of a double murder. It’s more than just a story about him, as it also focuses on the international repercussions that come from the whole human rights community that championed this case. This case actually lead to the abolishment of the death penalty in the Philippines.
Marty Syjuco: It’s also a personal story about two families and two moms fighting for polarized versions of justice: one trying to save her son, and the other trying to execute those who she thinks are responsible for the crime. It’s also a story about how to fight injustice: What do you do if this is happening to you, your son, your family, your brother? Where do you turn? This family turned to the international human rights community, who made Paco the poster boy for their campaign against the death penalty. Amnesty [International] rallied in the streets, carrying pictures of Paco. So it’s a great example of grassroots campaigning.
Michael Collins: The power of grassroots campaigning to really effect change on such a large scale.
Tribeca: What inspired you to document this story? I understand one of you is related to Paco?
Marty Syjuco: Yes, my brother Jaime is married to Paco’s sister, Mimi. So when this was happening to her brother and her family, we were kind of just observing from a distance, and we thought that it would work itself out in the courts. I was in school and then I moved to New York, and then all of sudden when Paco’s sentence was elevated to death, we were all in shock because we thought that under review they would basically acquit him, because there was all this overwhelming evidence that Paco couldn’t have done the crime. In fact, Paco was in Manila in cooking school when the alleged crime was happening in Cebu, which is a different island 300 miles away. The reason why we know Paco was in Manila is because he was in my house with my mom. My mom is one of his unheard witnesses who wanted to testify but that the judge wouldn’t allow to do so. When all of a sudden he was on death row it woke us up, and I told Michael about the case and gave him a letter that the "unheard 35" [those who were not allowed to testify] had written.
Michael Collins: Paco was initially sentenced to life imprisonment, and then the Supreme Court reviewed it for 4 years and then they elevated it to death. So all of his witnesses wrote this letter, and when I read it, it really moved me. The story was just unbelievable. The injustices described were just so incredible... at that point, Paco had been in jail for 7 years already, whereas I had been in New York City for 7 years. I was thinking back to how much I had grown and changed and learned and experienced in that time, and I was just imagining what it would be like to be plucked out of my life and locked away, and also how hard that must have been for him and for his family. We really wanted to tell this story, and we believe in the power of film to effect change. So we quit our jobs, got a camera and hopped on a plane.
Tribeca: There is so much information, corruption and uncovered side stories in this case. Where did you begin your research on this project?
Michael Collins: The first stage was talking to a couple of Paco’s witnesses. We were lucky that two of them had moved to... California. They had moved there partly because they were so disgusted with the justice system in the Philippines, and also because they were afraid. So we flew out to California and interviewed them, and after our talk we realized that what we had read was just the tip of the iceberg. The injustices in this case were just mind-boggling.
A lot of people who see in the film describe it as Kafkaesque, and it is. It’s just one unexpected turn after another, after another. So we started gathering as much information as we could; this was such a celebrated case in the Philippines that there was a wealth of archive news material. There are about 1500 articles that we were able to get our hands on, all the court transcripts, and every appeal that was ever written. So that was really the first step: poring through all this material and identifying where we were going to start our own investigation.
Marty Syjuco: We knew this story from one perspective, but in order to make our film we wanted to tackle it from the other perspective. That’s why it was very important for us to interview the Chiong family, their lawyers, and the police.
Tribeca: Were there any sides of the story you couldn’t get? Those who wouldn’t talk to you?
Michael Collins: Yes. Initially there were a lot of people who were very afraid, because it’s believed that there are some very dangerous, powerful people behind this crime, and a lot of people just didn’t want to talk about it. Our first trip was scheduled for 4 weeks, and we ended up staying there for 4 months because we really had to see people over and over again in order to convince them that our intentions were pure and true and that we were really going to try to tell this story in a way that it hadn’t been told before.
Tribeca: What was it like interviewing Mrs Chiong? Was it hard to remain objective when confronted with the woman who wanted, and almost had, Paco put to death?
Michael Collins: With everybody we interviewed, we just gave them space to tell their version of the story, and we weren’t very confrontational about it. We explained to Mrs. Chiong that we had the other side, and that made her want to share her story because she has her version and she wants it out there.
Marty Syjuco: Also, we were respectful of her as a grieving mother. Even though we don’t believe in the story as they claim it happened, she did lose two daughters. We don’t know what happened to them or whether they’re alive, but they did disappear, so we were always very respectful of that. But Mrs. Chiong certainly loves the media and the attention.
Tribeca: Some of the footage of her fits during the hearings was reminiscent of Salem Witch Trials.
Michael Collins: The melodrama is unbelievable.
Tribeca: On the other hand, it’s truly amazing how composed Paco seems to have remained throughout the endless injustices thrust upon him.
Michael Collins: And that’s what we found. Paco is the rock in the center of this whole thing. He is the one holding his family together, as well as his co-accused inmates. We learned a lot from him because there were times when we kept hitting hard turns during filming, and then we would just think about Paco and all that he has had to endure over the years—the way that he persists and doesn’t give up.
Marty Syjuco: And it’s unfortunate that his real character doesn’t come out in the documentary, because he’s really such a good spirited, charming guy. You get the serious side of him, because the thing with Paco was that he was just so burned by the media, especially in the Philippines and Cebu, that any time he sees a camera his defenses go up. Whenever he or his family granted interviews during the case, the media would always manipulate and twist what he was saying. The media played a pivotal role in persecuting this guy. He was tried by publicity. The public was bloodthirsty, and the media fed that.
Michael Collins: They really fed the frenzy. They stoked a lot of ethnic and class tensions just to sell papers, and disregarded any of the facts that were right there in front of them, plain as day. You realize the important role that media plays in safeguarding human rights, and when they don’t do their job, how deadly it can be.
Marty Syjuco: The media reporting was very sensational. The news reporters made a lot of racial comments because Paco is Spanish and the Chiongs are Chinese.
Tribeca: What were your interviews with Paco like? Was he initially trusting of you because Marty is a part of the family?
Marty Syjuco: I didn’t really know him very well. He is much younger than me, and I was living in Manila and then New York and he was in Cebu, so I had only met him a couple of times. It was through the process of making this film that I really got to know him. Michael met him our second day in the Philippines when we went to visit Paco on death row.
Michael Collins: We didn’t really know where we were going to begin, but we just said we have to go see him. So we arrived in the Philippines and the next morning we went to the prison. He had been on death row for almost a year. So we went there even though we had no way of getting in touch with him; we had sent some messages and we thought that he knew we were coming. So we got there and were outside this maximum security prison for about an hour, and finally someone came out and had our name on a piece of paper. He told us to follow him, and it was pretty scary.
This prison was really just a walled city run by gangs. There are about 12 gangs, and you can’t cross into certain places if you are visiting someone from another gang. We were already paranoid, because we’d been warned a lot that there were people behind this crime who didn’t want this story to be told. But then we get into this building where there is no electricity, no light, and we were literally holding onto each other and shuffling our feet on the floor; every time a cigarette lighter would go off, we would just see bodies all around, shirtless men lying and standing all over the place.
Marty Syjuco: It was bad luck that there was no electricity that day. At that time it was summer and there was no electricity in the prison, and so when we entered it was just pitch black. It’s not always like that, but the Philippines has infrastructure problems.
Michael Collins: We finally got through the prison and were led up this staircase and into a room where Paco was. There were bars in that room, so sunlight was being let through, and it was just wonderful meeting him. All of a sudden, all of that tension and fear was gone the second we were in his presence. He’s such a great host, so we learned to love going there. We would literally go there 4-5 days a week for about 6-8 hours a day, for months. This was how we really earned his trust: being in there and eating meals with him, and after about 3 months that was when we finally picked up the camera for the first time.
Marty Syjuco: That was also because we had to figure out how to bring the camera into the prison.
Tribeca: So you had to conduct the interviews in secret?
Marty Syjuco: Yes. After 3 months of getting a better idea of the ins and outs of how the prison operates, we figured out a way to bring the camera in. We would use the camera during our visits, if it was safe to retrieve, and when we wanted to get footage around the prison grounds, we would conceal the camera in a paper bag with a hole. When our visits would end, the camera would be placed in a zip-lock bag and we would bury it. Generally the guards remain outside the prison, along the walls, and leave the gangs to govern themselves. But they would conduct raids periodically.
Michael Collins: And that was quite frustrating, because then the camera wouldn’t work that well. We would shoot all day in the cell, interviewing Paco, and then send people out once in a while with the camera inside a paper bag and they would get shots around the prison and the prison dorm. We would then take the tape out with us because they wouldn’t search you on the way out, but when we would get back home the tape wouldn’t work—it would be totally blank or completely dirty; it was also so humid and hot there. So we lost a lot of footage that way, and it was just heartbreaking, because these moments were so priceless. Paco would finally open up, or this memory would come out, and it was just gold to us, and then we would lose it.
Marty Syjuco: But with that said, we do have over 300 hours of footage, and that’s why we have been editing for almost 2 years now. It’s gone from 300 hours to 90 minutes, and like we said, what comes out in the film is just the tip of the iceberg. So we are very excited about the prospect of DVD extras and making webisodes for online distribution, because there is truly a lot more to the story than what’s in our film.
Tribeca: Did you talk to the other boys convicted along with Paco, who are all still serving life sentences in the Philippines?
Michael Collins: Unfortunately, they are not featured prominently in the film, but we did have interviews with them, and it turns out a lot of them were tortured to point the finger at Paco. They were all promised the world if they would just say that Paco did it, but none of them would, except the one [David Valiente Rusia] who turned state witness.
Marty Syjuco: We also met with their families and interviewed them, and it’s just heartbreaking. We do focus on Paco, but each of them have similar stories. It’s the boys who are in prison, but it’s really the entire family that suffers. Sometimes when we spent time with Paco’s parents or his sister Mimi, we would realize that they are as much imprisoned as he is. They feel so much pain and guilt. Paco is inside, and he is just focused on his survival. They, however, live on the outside and any time they travel or have a good time, or even laugh, they feel guilty that they are enjoying themselves when their loved one is locked away.
Tribeca: What's the craziest thing (or "lightning strikes" moment) that happened during production?
Michael Collins: I think that the last interview I got with Mrs. Chiong was pretty intense. The common belief is that her husband worked for this drug lord, and what really happened to her daughters was tied into her husband’s bad business relationships. It was scary exposing ourselves to them.
I remember that when I went in to see them, it was in this old half-abandoned building. The husband refused to be on camera for the interview, and as I was interviewing Mrs. Chiong, I would have to ask probing questions once in a while, because there were so many discrepancies that would come up, and every time I did, her husband would pull out a knife and start picking his fingers with it. I was there with a local producer we had hired, and she was trembling, and I could see him doing it out of the corner of my eye, so I would change the line of questioning. But every time I returned to these probing questions, the knife would come out and he would start picking his fingers again. We knew we had to get the interviews with the police and the prosecuting attorneys, but we were warned: after you do it, just get off the island.
Marty Syjuco: There were many interviews that we did in Cebu where we would go straight from the interview to the airport and fly to Manila, because we felt safer there. In Cebu, with the police frame-ups and the drug lords, we felt exposed.
Tribeca: So this was really a life-threatening experience for you guys.
Michael Collins: Yes, and it’s funny, I think the safest that I felt during filming was in the prison with Paco. It’s an unstable environment, but you feel safe inside, because they treat visitors with a lot of respect. If a visitor gets harmed, they all lose visitation, and that would just throw off everyone’s way of life there.
Marty Syjuco: It’s survival of the fittest in there.
Tribeca: Speaking of which, Paco had to join a gang to survive life in the Philippine prison. This was a really tough part of the documentary.
Michael Collins: Yeah, this is a guy who was in cooking school. He was studying to become a chef when he was 19 years old, and all of a sudden he was in a gang where they use makeshift guns made of lead pipes. He would show us scars from where he had been shot, and a number of his friends had died. The guards stay on the outside, and they like to let wars break out because it keeps the prisoners under control.
Tribeca: Paco is imprisoned in Spain now, and you visited him there also. How did it differ from the Philippines?
Marty Syjuco: The prison there is very different. It’s more your traditional prison system with cells. It’s very disciplined, and when you visit him you are separated by a glass wall and there are guards surrounding you.
Michael Collins: It’s difficult for him. He knew in the Philippines that he would never get out of jail, but his daily life was a little bit better. His parents could come and have dinner with him, and you don’t have that kind of freedom in a more formal prison in Europe. So it’s been a struggle for him. He’s going to school, he’s working in the hospital there, he’s lost about 30 lbs. He’s healthy and active, but very lonely.
Tribeca: Are there any recent developments in his case?
Michael Collins: Every month he is put before the review board and he is always up for parole, so we’re really hopeful that with the premiere of this film, this issue will get back out into the public’s consciousness. Something that you see in the film is the power of grassroots campaigning and the big role it's played in this case—to get the death penalty abolished and to get Paco transferred to Spain. But it’s quieted down, so we really want to start making some noise again. We feel like this film is really going to help do that and shift things back in his favor. Having a launching ground like Tribeca is a dream come true for us, because it’s such a high profile festival and there are things that can only happen in New York. Everybody is here.
Marty Syjuco: So we’re excited for the film, but then also for the campaign. Our team is currently forming partnerships with various human rights groups, which we can’t really mention right now, but it’s exciting. And all this wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t been invited to Tribeca.
Michael Collins: We are currently formalizing what the call to action will be, and that will be ready to go by the premiere of the film, so that afterwards people will be able to get involved in Paco’s cause.
Marty Syjuco: Michael will also be taking part in a Tribeca Talks panel: Are Documentary Films Changing the World? (April 24, 2:30 pm)
Michael Collins: We obviously believe that they can, and that is why we made this film.
Tribeca: What's your advice for aspiring filmmakers?
Michael Collins: Like Marty said, we have over 300 hours of footage, and that’s a nightmare, especially when it’s in foreign languages. So I would say have a clear vision when you pick up the camera, and to keep that vision as concise as possible. Our film has a lot more emotional resonance at 90 minutes.
Marty Syjuco: And persevere. Don’t give up or lose hope. Be patient. When we started making the film, if we had known it was going to take 6 years, we might not have done it! There were times, though, when we were wondering when it would all end. You have to embrace the process and commit to the story and now we can say it’s all worth it.
Michael Collins: We would apply for funding over and over and keep getting rejected. If someone turns you down, go back again. One of the biggest grants we got was from ITVS, who we applied to 4 separate times. The rejection process was also helpful in that having to articulate our story to others helped us grow and shape the film.
Marty Syjuco: We were also lucky that we got support from the Tribeca Film Institute. It all started for us through our 2008 Tribeca All Access and Gucci Tribeca Documentary fund grants. Before that point, everything had been self-financed, and we knew when we got into post-production that we needed to hire editors, etc., so we needed serious funding. Tribeca’s was the first grant we got, and it all started from there. It was a domino effect after that.
Tribeca: If you could have dinner with any filmmaker (alive or dead), who would it be?
Michael Collins: Werner Herzog, because from the interviews that I’ve seen with him, he’s such a character I don’t think there wouldn’t be a dull moment. I probably wouldn’t even have to say anything. I’m a huge fan of his work.
Marty Syjuco: For me it would be Errol Morris. He makes important, meaningful documentaries that are also every entertaining. One of the films that really inspired us to make our film is The Thin Blue Line, as that film basically exonerated its subject, Randall Adams, of a crime he did not commit.
Tribeca: What piece of art (book/film/music/tv show/what-have-you) are you currently recommending to your friends most often?
Marty Syjuco: My younger brother wrote a book called Illustrato that was published last year. It’s a story about my family in the Philippines, and it’s already won some awards..
Michael Collins: I’m listening to the new Holcombe Waller album called Into the Dark. There’s actually a funny YouTube video I watch every once in a while of him doing a rendition of Prince’s Nothing Compares to You. So if you’re ever feeling down, I highly recommend it.
Tribeca: What would your biopics be called?
Michael Collins: There are so many wonderful people out there in the world so I’d like to stay on the other side of the camera and tell their stories.
Marty Syjuco: That’s why I think we make such a good filmmaking team. We don’t like being on this side of the camera, we like being on your side. I think if I had to choose a biopic title it would be “One Hundred Years of Solitude” [laughs], after the novel, since we’ve been in this cave of editing for so long for this film.
Tribeca: What makes Give Up Tomorrow a Tribeca must-see?
Michael Collins: This is a film where you are going to see things onscreen you’ve never seen things before. There is one strange, jaw-dropping turn after another, and because this case was so covered by the media, we were able to get access to some really unique moments on film. It’s a story about two families and their struggles, and by watching these struggles, you learn so much about corruption and democracy and the role that we all have to play in insuring that it doesn’t break down. We all have to be responsible participants, and we have the power to effect change.
Marty Syjuco: It’s a roller coaster ride, and the audience will be on the edge of their seats, but it’s also real life. Even though this story takes place halfway across the world, in a country that most of us haven’t visited, it’s a universal story. This happens wherever there is government, and a sensational media—wherever there is the death penalty. So we want our film to be inspiring and hopeful and ultimately achieve that happy ending we are all still hoping for.
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