POV: Describe this film for someone who hasn’t seen it.
Marty Syjuco, producer: Give Up Tomorrow is a jaw-dropping story about a young man who is wrongfully accused of a gruesome crime and sentenced to death. It’s basically your worst nightmare unfolding. One day he’s in cooking school, and the next day he’s behind bars. It’s a film that exposes the corruption and injustice that permeates every day life in the Philippines.
POV: How did you get involved in telling this story? How did you discover it?
Michael Collins, director: Back in 2004 was when Paco was sentenced to death. Initially he was sentenced to life in prison in 1997 and then waited for years for the Supreme Court to review his case. In 2004, he was sentenced to death and that’s when Marty’s brother reached out to me knowing that I had a background in animation. He asked if I would you make a short animation that we could put on the web to show some of the injustices that Paco suffered in the trial. I did some research on the case and realized that this was such a big story and that it really had to be told as a documentary. That’s when we decided to work together, pick up a camera and go to the Philippines.
POV: So Marty, tell us about your main character and your relationship with him prior to making the film?
Syjuco: Our main character is Paco Larrañaga – he’s the young man who was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death. Paco’s sister, his older sister Mimi, is married to my older brother Jaime. So I met Paco at my brother’s wedding and he’s about eight years younger than I am so I didn’t really know him at all. Paco was actually in my house in Manila on the day that he was accused of committing this crime in Cebu. We know this because my mom saw him, spoke to him. So my mom is actually one of Paco’s witnesses who was never allowed to testify during the trial. When the Supreme Court sentenced him to death, that’s when we realized that the courts and the justice system would never do the right thing and that’s when we decided that we had to get involved. For seven years I watched this happen and just kind of stood by, and I felt this overwhelming guilt suddenly hit me because I never got involved. That’s kind of what inspired me to make this film.
POV: So here’s a situation where you have someone who has been wrongfully accused of a horrific crime and you decide to make a film about it. Why a documentary film and not a social action campaign? Why specifically a documentary?
Collins: I think we’ve always believed in the power of documentary really to create social change on a big level. Paco really represents thousands and thousands of innocent people who are victims of broken justice systems all over the world and the system in the Philippines, all of their laws are really based on those here in the United States as a former colony.
Syjuco: We’re big fans of documentary films and we were inspired by other films of this genre like The Thin Blue Line by Errol Morris and Presumed Guilty, The Trials of Darryl Hunt and the Paradise Lost trilogy. So we saw firsthand the kind of impact that documentary films can have on a viewer and an audience especially. When this story happened upon us and we felt that we had to get involved, it just made total sense to start making a documentary film.
POV: In addition to Paco and his family being a part of this film, you also have the family, particularly the mother, of the two young girls who were the murder victims in the case he’s being tried in. How did you get access to that side of the case and build trust for her to let you follow her?
Collins: Mrs. Chiong, the mother of the two girls who went missing, was really the first victim in all of this. We obviously have access to Paco’s family because of Marty’s relation. We started very early on reaching out to her [Mrs. Chiong] and telling her that we’re talking with this side of the family but it’s really important that we include your voice in this. She was hesitant at first but eventually she said “Okay, I want to tell my side of the story.” And that was our approach. We went into those interviews without attacking her – we really just set up the camera and let her tell her version.
POV: In the film, capital punishment is finally abolished in the Philippines. Did the film or your making of the film play any role in that? How do you see this specific story fitting into that change?
Collins: When we started making this film, Paco was on death row and he was desperate. He said “Can you please bring a message to Spain?” As a dual citizen, he wanted Spain to know his situation. So we recorded a video message of him pleading for help and brought it to Spain. That went viral there. All of a sudden the whole country now was aware of his case. A number of congressmen and senators took up his case as their own cause, and they would go and visit him. It gave us the opportunity to go to Spain back in 2005 and create a short piece that was shown on national TV there, a one hour advocacy piece. So from that, there was increased pressure from Spanish government onto the Philippines to correct this injustice. In fact it comes out a little bit in the film that the president of the Philippines says “Paco won’t be executed on my watch.” And then on the day that she’s getting ready to leave to go on a state visit to Spain, she abolishes the death penalty and brings it to the King of Spain and presents it to him as a gift. So you know, we’d like to think that Paco’s case played its part in helping to get the death penalty abolished in the Philippines.
POV: Where is Paco now?
Collins: He remains in prison and in Spain. Things are getting better for him. They’re treating him really well there. They’re actually treating him like someone who they are preparing to let out on parole, but they’re not letting him out. There is something about this case that I think makes every judge who ever comes to it very nervous. He’s studying, he’s doing really well – he’s lost 40 pounds, so mentally and physically he’s in a good place and he feels that he’s closer to freedom than he’s ever been, but he’s also very frustrated because he was essentially brought to Spain because he’s innocent, and here we are almost three years later and he remains incarcerated.
Syjuco: It seems like the film is already making an impact in Spain and for Paco’s current situation because ever since the film came out a year ago, they’re no longer requiring him to admit his guilt. If you remember, that’s how the film ends, that’s one of the requirements for parole is to admit your guilt because in theory if you’re in prison, then you’re guilty. But that rule shouldn’t apply to Paco because everybody knows he’s innocent. Especially the Spanish government who worked so hard to bring him to Spain.
POV: And he’s seen the film?
Syjuco: Yeah, last November we were screening in Bilbao. It was a human rights event that was sponsored by the Basque government so the government asked permission from the prison to let Paco attend and they granted him a one day leave. It was really a dream come true because we always thought that when we finished a film, hopefully we would get into festivals and we could tour a little bit and Paco could join us for the Q&As afterwards and tell about his experience. Unfortunately that didn’t quite happen, but for that one screening he actually did Q&A with us and it was so emotional.
Collins: His reaction was really something else. He said that was the first time in 15 years he had sat in a movie theater and to be watching his own story, sitting next to his parents, was a bit surreal. But afterwards, he told us that he slept better that night than he’s slept in 15 years. So I think for Paco, he’s hopeful that he’s going to get out but I think he knows that it’s not going to happen overnight. Just having this film out there telling his true story for the first time gives him some satisfaction and gives him some peace.
POV: Can you talk a little bit about advocacy versus storytelling and how you see your roles as filmmakers on that spectrum?
Sjyuco: When we made this film our priority was the film first. We really wanted to make as engaging and entertaining a film as possible because we knew that if the film failed then nobody would want to get involved. Then, the advocacy aspect and the campaign aspect would fail as well. Yeah, I mean the past year we’ve screened the film in over 50 festivals and in more than 20 countries around the world. Firstly, nobody leaves their seats. Everybody always stays, especially when they find out that there’s going to be a Q&A, but the first question that’s always asked is what can I do? How do I get involved? How can I help? For us that’s really gratifying because we feel that we must have done something right for the audience to react that way.
POV: You want the film to inspire action. Be specific. What kinds of actions are you looking to inspire your audiences to take?
Collins: Something that I think we’re really excited about doing with the film in the Philippines is using it to help found a chapter of the Innocence Project in the Philippines. That’s where change can happen more immediately, because their model is using DNA evidence to exonerate people who have been wrongfully convicted. So we’ve already been in touch with the Innocence Project here, with people who work at the University of the Philippines who run the DNA lab there who are involved in the law schools, and we hope that part of our premiere in the Philippines is also going to be celebrating the launch of the Innocence Project there.
Syjuco: The time is ripe right now because there’s actually this wave of judicial reform that’s going on in the Philippines. Our past two presidents have been impeached, and the current president ran on a platform of anti-corruption and human rights so there is an opportunity for change. I’m hoping that our film will actually be part of that and spark that conversation that will get people’s hearts and minds thinking, “what if this happens to me” and “how do I get involved.”
POV: The Philippine media in the film is a prominent element to the story in how they portray Paco’s case. Can you talk a little bit about that? What was the reaction to how the case was being portrayed there? How were they portraying it, particularly in reference to the more popular media?
Syjuco: Paco’s presumption of innocence was taken away. He was presented by the media to the public when he was first arrested as “these are the guys who did it.” So going into his trial, which was a farce, the public already believed that these guys were guilty and it was basically trial by publicity. It worked because this became known as the trial of the century, so the public was eating it up. They were buying the newspapers and the ratings went up, and they did a reenactment of the case – they hired famous actors to play the roles of Paco and his co-accused, and they depicted them committing the crime. They broadcast it on national Philippine television while his trial was happening.
POV: Can you contrast that with how the media here portrays criminal justice cases,particularly those sensational ones?
Collins: I think one of the scariest things is that there are a lot of parallels. People think that this is a story that would never happen here – that only happens in the Philippines but as we’ve worked on this we’ve gotten very close with many people who work for instance at Amnesty International and at the Innocence Project, and they say they’ve seen this exact same thing happen over and over again. That an entire case will rest on the testimony of one witness who either knowingly or unknowingly is falsely identifying someone for a crime. Here in the U.S. where we still have the death penalty, there have been hundreds of exonerations in recent years thanks to the Innocence Project, and it just proves that our system is also flawed.
POV: This is a big complicated story and we’re curious if you can just give us a flavor of how you went about researching it, going out there and filming. Who was doing what?
Collins: When we began this film back in 2004, we had very little experience. We literally had bought the camera, I think, a couple of days before hopping on a plane to Manila – we were reading the instruction manual while we were on the plane. On the ground in the Philippines, we were really just conducting an investigation, and letting each interview lead us to the next. Certainly there were people that we wanted to reach out to, but that was just a starting point. We were a two man crew. We had a camera, a couple microphones, and we were figuring things out as we went along.
POV: Being so closely connected to this, at some point you have to step back as filmmakers to actually tell the story. How do you do that, and when did you make that decision?
Collins: I think when we sat down in the edit room and started putting together this story, we realized that we had to treat all of our characters the same. That they were all essentially victims of a broken justice system. We were watching people, both families, just responding to tragedy and in their responding, we saw the whole spectrum. One responded in what we would consider a very honorable way and the other sort of used the flaws in the justice system to their advantage. But we couldn’t judge them. We really just had to say what is the story, what actually happened, and what is it that they perceived happened – allow them to be the ones to tell the story in their own voice. That’s why in making this film, we could have just gone out and shot Paco, his family and all of his witnesses and had a pretty compelling piece. But we went out of our way to make sure that we got everyone involved, from the Chiong family to the police to the prosecutors to give them that space to tell their side of the story.
Syjuco: that was one of the bigger challenges as well. It’s being so close to the story – I mean it was happening to my brother’s family and in our experience making this film, Paco’s family became our family too. We spent so much time with them and visiting him in prison. But we were lucky that we were able to leave the Philippines and detach — come back to New York and lock ourselves up in the edit suite and work with an extraordinary team. That’s where we were able to not feel so personal.
POV: What were some of the biggest surprises you had along the way? Or challenges?
Syjuco: So we realized that we had to somehow bring a camera into the prison and that wasn’t very easy because there’s no cameras allowed. It’s basically a walled city run by gangs and it’s chaos and it’s dangerous. We’re not proud of this, that we actually perpetuated the corruption, but we paid someone to smuggle the camera in for us. Someone actually put it under their robes and that’s not searched when they enter. I think that says it all.
POV: So in terms of your ethical obligations to your character — obviously, you have someone who is in a vulnerable position, he’s on death row. How do you wrestle with that, in saying “are you willing to take this risk by smuggling this into the prison?” You knew this was central to your story.
Collins: I think when the decision was made to smuggle a camera into the prison to capture Paco’s voice, it was really Paco who was at a greater risk than we were. It was something that he insisted on doing. If they found out that he had a camera in the prison, then he would go to solitary confinement for weeks and god only knows what they would do to him. So he was at much more risk than we were and we really left it up to him. We allowed it to be his call. I think just in working on this story and seeing what the family had suffered, what so many people had suffered, it really made whatever we were going through at the time seem insignificant. Any risks that we were taking seemed worth it compared to what everyone else had been going through and continued to go through.