Producer Marty Syjuco and I had been friends for a few years when his older brother, Paco Larrañaga’s brother-in-law, asked for our help. I had heard that Paco was accused of murdering two women on the island of Cebu in the Philippines, but until his death sentence everyone in the family was embarrassed to talk about it and was 100 percent sure that the Supreme Court would overturn the verdict.
I retained some skepticism — until I read the letter from the 35 “unheard witnesses” in the case. I was in a café on New York City’s Lower East Side, and the letter brought me to tears. Paco was my age, and over that last seven years, while I had thrived, he had waited, unjustly condemned to execution, in a horrific gang-run prison.
There was no way to ignore the injustice; I had a background in video and had long believed in film’s ability to create social change. But it was only when I realized how passionate I had become about this story that I felt the full power of the medium.
Passion alone does not make good cinema, though, and it has taken seven years to complete this project. Our first step was to go to Los Angeles to interview two of the letter writers who attested to Paco’s whereabouts when the crime was committed in 1997. They had left the Philippines, partially out of disgust over this case, but also because they felt haunted by guilt — the same guilt we would feel if we were unable to reverse a clear and terrible injustice. At our first meeting in Los Angeles, the two broke down and wept over their powerlessness and failure to make anyone listen. They painted a picture of cronyism, corruption and class/race conflict in the Philippines that made us realize this injustice was only the tip of a very deep iceberg.
In the Philippines, a few people, galvanized by the opportunity to do the right thing, supported us with housing, resources, information and encouragement. Others held back, believing that the system was beyond reform and the risk in going against police, presidents and drug lords was too high.
Paco, who will soon have spent half his life in prison, was reticent for other reasons: When we discussed the case and prison, he became cold and somber. But when we talked about his pre-trial life, he was full of warmth and enthusiasm. I regret that — because of the prison environment and Paco’s experience of media as enemy — we could not adequately capture on film the sweetness and joy in his personality that we glimpsed, and that Paco’s friends and family saw as his essential nature.
I came to understand that we could prove Paco’s innocence over and over with the facts, but that would never be enough. We needed not only to expose a deep and complex dynamic of corruption and injustice, but also to reveal the part of the culture of the Philippines that is human, decent and suffering.
— Michael Collins, Director
I first met Paco at my brother’s wedding to Mimi, Paco’s older sister. Eight years younger than I, he was just a big, overweight kid, and I didn’t pay him much attention. Later, when I heard about his arrest and trial, I went on with my life. Part of me figured the courts would sort it out. Another part was so inured to the injustice and corruption that form the background noise of the Philippines, that I, like most Filipinos, was hobbled by fatalism.
After moving to New York and working in film distribution, I began to crave something more meaningful and creative. When Paco’s sentence was elevated to death, and I saw the letter from the 35 “unheard witnesses,” I knew I was at a crossroads. My own mother had seen Paco in Manila — 300 miles from the scene of the crime — on the day of the murders and had been denied the right to testify in court and corroborate his alibi.
I know some will question my objectivity and intent because Paco is my brother-in-law, but that relationship gave me inside access and perspective. It also opened my eyes to a part of the Philippines that, as one of its beneficiaries, I had ignored.
My family members are mestizos, a group that traditionally benefits from endemic corruption and cronyism. Educated in Canada and the United States, I had lived in a gated community in the Philippines, and I had been naively and willfully ignorant of the poverty all around me — blind even to the thousands of street children who haunt our cities. My clan was well protected by race, political connections and wealth from the worst aspects of our country’s deeply flawed system.
It was precisely my comfort in this role, and my perspectives as a political and familial insider, that made me particularly suited — and obligated — to act in Paco’s case. I had left the Philippines, but it lived inside me. And I knew I had to return. I love the country and have friends and family there, but I have grown to abhor the fatalism that allows people to turn away from injustice, and that helps the elite control the poor and uneducated.
But even for the elite, the country’s poorly paid and ill-trained police are a persistent threat — to be bribed as a first resort, and allowed to escape if that fails. Under political pressure to solve crimes, they commonly charge any vaguely likely suspect. I strongly believe that most of the Philippines’ prisoners have been denied due process or are innocent — or both, as we found in Paco’s case — and that injustice is facilitated by the media. Once I had believed what I read and saw, but first-hand knowledge made me question so many of my birthright preconceptions and opened not only a sea of skepticism, but an ocean of hope.
Paco Larrañaga is just one among many. And the Philippines is not alone in failing to build the trappings of democracy, including elections, on a solid foundation of impartial institutions, such as independent courts. There are thousands of Pacos around the world, from Egypt to the United States. We are hoping that this film will make not only Filipinos, but people of all nationalities, sit up, pay attention and act.
— Marty Syjuco, Producer