Posted: 04/27/2011


TriBeCa 2011: Michael Collins, Marty Syjuco and the Larrañaga family talk about GIVE UP TOMORROW

by Sanela Djokovic

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If there is any film at this year’s TriBeCa Film Festival that will stay with us it will be the documentary GIVE UP TOMORROW. In fact, it does more than stay with us, it awakens hibernating senses of empathy, honesty, integrity and stifles our gravitation toward apathy and numbness. The story of Paco Larrañaga’s wrongful conviction and imprisonment establishes a place in our hearts, and also our minds, reminding us of how many lives slip through the cracks of justice systems all over the world, and of the place we take in the scheme of it all.

In 1997, a 19-year-old culinary student named Paco Larrañaga and six other young men were arrested for the kidnapping, rape and murder of the Chiong sisters, a crime that would rank among the most notorious the Philippines has ever seen. Because Paco was in Manila, hundreds of miles from Cebu, where the girls went missing, he and his family waited for the matter to be cleared up. But, the nightmare never ended. Larrañaga and the six men were convicted, despite no physical evidence linking them to the crime and forty reliable witnesses, attendance records and photographs that place Paco in Manila that night.

GIVE UP TOMORROW lays out the ample and straight-forward facts of the case, while examining the many deviating paths of corruption and injustice that lead Paco to death row. Director Michael Collins, producer Marty Syjuco, Paco’s father Manuel Larrañaga, mother Margot Larrañaga and sister Mimi Larrañaga sat down with me and generously and openheartedly talked about Paco and the rejuvenated hope that stems from their powerful documentary.

On the fears, trepidations and challenges of making a film about Paco…

Michael Collins: One of the greatest challenges that we faced in tackling this was that it was such a big story and it was so complex— it takes place in four different countries, it spans fourteen years. Its so emotionally charged, but its also a very complex story in terms of the plot. In the back of our minds we were panicking a little bit about that. It was incredible to have all that to pull from, but also overwhelming. That’s why we knew we had to bring on an experienced editor and experienced advisers to really help guide us. It was such an important story to us personally. We wanted to tell it properly, so that’s why it took us so long.

Margot Larrañaga: We’re very low key people, so being in the media is not really our cup of tea. But suffering the injustice for so long, having everything against Paco, all those lies, all that agony…When Marty and Mike decided to do a film we thought it could be the venue for Paco’s story to be told— the real story of Paco, the injustice that he lives even now. He is still in jail. So, that’s why we welcomed them to our homes, to have interviews, to have all access.

On difficult times during the filmmaking process and Paco’s involvement in the film…

Michael: There were a lot of low points. It was a rollercoaster ride, because we were so invested in Paco and his story, so I think a lot of our highs and lows came with the highs and lows of his case. There was a point where the supreme court was reconsidering their decision and we had a lot of hope that they were going to do the right thing, that they were going to take this opportunity to acquit him. When that didn’t happen it was devastating, because we were just so scared for his life. Then we were thinking we didn’t get this film out fast enough. He was on death row and execution was going to happen. For me personally, that was a point where I just felt I was failing as a filmmaker, because I should have crafted the story quicker, brought it out into the world sooner.

Marty Syjuco: When Michael and I first started making this film six years ago we had always dreamt that when we finished and when we would premiere it at festivals that Paco would be with us at the premiere. We would talk about it in prison during the lulls of interviews. We would allow ourselves to hope he would be with us and he would come out and greet the audience. Paco’s always said once he comes out he will fight for injustice, for the other wrongfully convicted, for his co-accused and for others. Not only in the Philippines, but everywhere. He wanted to start a foundation. Those are the kind of conversations we would have in prison. Its unfortunate that Paco is not here with us. We are so grateful that his family is. Michael and I are looking forward to traveling to other festivals, bringing the film to other audiences and hopefully one day Paco will be with us and experience this.

Michael: We didn’t start shooting interviews with Paco until three months into our first trip to the Philippines. We really spent time within the prison, getting to know him. Marty is a distant relative of Paco’s— his brother is married to Paco’s sister, but he didn’t know Paco so well, so we really had to earn his trust. He had been burned by the media many, many times. So that was part of this journey for us— just getting to know Paco. Then we had to figure out how to get a camera in jail, which is a whole other set of challenges we finally overcame.

Mimi Larrañaga : Paco found it really difficult to really open up his hurt and put it out there, because I guess he has to be strong all the time. All the pain has to be deep, deep, deep. So to be asked such emotional questions and to relive all the pain that he has gone through…[To Michael and Marty] I think you guys found it difficult, right?

Marty: Imagine you’re in cooking school one day and then the next you’re in a third world prison where its just about survival. Paco’s focus was on surviving day by day. That ended up being the title of our film. It was inspired by something that Paco said, when he would feel like giving up today he would say ‘I’ll just give up tomorrow. And, when tomorrow comes I’ll just give up tomorrow.’ And, that’s how he’s been able to survive for fourteen years in prison. It was challenging to get Paco to open up, but we built this trust.

Michael: It took a lot of time. He spent so many years protecting himself and building up all these walls just to survive. Some of my best experiences over the past six years were those moments off camera with him, when we would forget that we were in prison and his walls would come down. We would get a glimpse of this old Paco that they told us so much about, who is just so full of life and laughter. He has this big laugh. He has this energy that… You just want to be around him. He’s just so welcoming and all of his friends told us Paco was the life of the party. When you go to a party, if you see a group of people, you know that Paco’s standing right in the center. And, it was just so wonderful to experience that. It was one of my great regrets that we don’t have much of that in the film. Its a part of Paco that unfortunately comes out less and less, because he’s now been in jail for almost fourteen years.

Marty: We got to the point where we enjoyed visiting Paco in prison so much, there were times where we were in the Philippines for months at a time… Its like Michael’s birthday and I would ask him ‘what do you want to do on your birthday?’ We don’t have to work. We can do something fun. He said ‘I want to spend my birthday in jail with Paco.’ So we would end up going to prison and Paco would do something special for Mike, like serenade him or sing, make it special. In spite of being in prison we would still find a way to celebrate.

On Paco’s mental fortitude and enduring character…

Mimi: This is a super Paco thing to do. He gets sent to death row, his cell is like six-by-six. We visited him and he said ‘I need shower curtains that are very beachy, because I want to turn this into a beach house.’ We brought him paint and he painted.. Instead of focusing on ‘Oh my God, I’m in a six -by -six cell on death row just waiting for execution’, he turned it into something that day by day he could enjoy. He always has a project. In fact, this wasn’t mentioned in the film— while he as in jail he started a carpentry business and he called it ‘Hope Works’ and that was while he was waiting for the supreme court acquittal. So he got all these guys, arsonists and all these guys, to start making frames. Then he would ask me and our cousin to sell it outside of jail, and with the money he built a mezzanine for people who had tuberculosis, old-timers who had been forgotten. I was like ‘Wow.’ He was like ‘its very important to have a project. When you wake up in the morning, you have to know what you’re going to do.’ Where do you learn that? How did you learn that? He was nineteen years old when he was put in prison.

Margot: In Spain, its really rehabilitative. They have classes, they learn traits, handy crafts. He’s busy. He says ‘I always have to keep busy, so the mind will not be thinking about sad things’. He enlists himself in all these courses. He’s now in charge of the computer room, to make sure that its clean before the teacher comes. He makes sure that nothing gets lost, that nobody steals anything. And, he also works in the infirmary. He serves food to the elderly and the sick. Or, if someone has a drug problem, he’s there on guard watching when that person is in crisis— things like that. He’s really a caring, nurturing person.

On balancing a normal life and remaining dedicated to Paco’s case…

Mimi: It was really hard at first. When Paco was first transferred to maximum security prison in Manila I was living in Manila. I just had a child. I felt so bad for Paco— to be undergoing this injustice. It was like I wanted to serve his sentence with him. So, I would drop off my daughter at pre-school, and then I would go to jail and spend the entire day in jail with my brother. Then I realized—I have a kid and can’t really do this everyday. I was also becoming very paranoid about police.. I didn’t trust anybody basically. So, I had to leave the Philippines. I couldn’t stay there. My parents— everything they do is for Paco.. They work, they save money just so they could go visit Paco. Everything is for Paco, so the balance is really hard. Its because he’s innocent. I think if he wasn’t innocent it would be different. But, because all of us feel so terrible, we just want to do what we can to ease the pain. Everything always tilts towards Paco.

On what is currently being done to help Paco…

Michael: Right now, what I think you see in the film is the power of grassroots campaigning, how it can really affect change and on such a large scale. Working from that model, you see in Spain that they gathered signatures, hundreds of thousands of them, very quickly and brought them to Congress. Then the Spanish government gets involved, and then Amnesty International collected even more. Then the death penalty was abolished. What we’re so thrilled about is after people see the film one of the first questions we always get is ‘What can i do?’ So, we’ve started a petition on This is just the beginning, but we’re just going to gather as many signatures as we can, so that when the legal team is ready to take action they’ll have this in their arsenal. They’ll have the public opinion on their side. And, I hope we can get signatures from all around the world.

Margot: Right now we have the petition asking for absolute pardon , commutation of sentence. Its still with the Board of Pardons and Parole in the Philippines. Because of the treaty the sentencing country has the say. Paco’s in Spain now, but Spain can not commute his sentence, cannot give him absolute pardon. They have to ask the permission of the Philippine government, so it really rests in the hands of the president. The president has the pardoning power and executive clemency, but it has to be recommended by the Board of Pardons and Parole. That’s where we are now. Its still being studied.

On feeling hopeful…

Mimi: Definitely. In the Philippines Paco is the bad guy, he’s the criminal, he’s garbage. Now with this film people will finally see his true story and maybe it will open their eyes. Fourteen years ago he fell through the cracks of the Philippine justice system. Maybe policy makers can now take a look at how this happened. Maybe even the public will realize ‘What did we do? We sent an innocent boy to death row.’ Its very hard for politicians to move to do anything, because its very unpopular. That’s been our problem all throughout. Nobody wants to speak up for Paco, even if they know he’s innocent. Even if they read the transcripts and know its full of injustice, nobody will speak up for us, because of public opinion. So, maybe with this film public opinion will turn and that’s what we’re hoping. That’s one of the powerful things this film can do.

On the universal problem Paco’s case represents…

Marty: The campaign that’s being built alongside with the film is ‘Justice for Paco, Justice for all.’ Paco’s not the only one and it doesn’t only happen in the Philippines. It happens here in the United States. There’s still death penalty. Everyday, because of DNA evidence, people who have been imprisoned for years are being exonerated. We’re hoping that our film can really call attention to these wrongful convictions, to these framed victims and to the issue of the death penalty.

Michael: We feel its a very universal story. We want people to reflect on their own justice system, on democracy and the role they have to play, the responsibility that we all have to look out for each other, to safeguard each other’s human rights.

Margot: I’m a very religious person, so I was thinking, praying and it dawned on me that there must be a divine plan. God must have a plan. We’re just here to be His instruments, and of course at that time I didn’t understand why this was happening to Paco. Why in the lower court he was only given life in prison? We went to the supreme court thinking it would be lessened or he would be acquitted— it even went to the death penalty. Why the death penalty? Later on, when the Spanish government came in to help, and also the European Union,all the lobbying and not only us— there were a lot of families of those who were on death row who were lobbying and had their own representation. It was everyone’s effort. But, then finally when the death penalty was abolished, then it dawned on me that maybe they will be able to remedy the loopholes in the criminal justice system. Maybe this is an instrument for that kind of change.

Manuel Larrañaga : The story is not just about Paco, but the six other co-accused, who really have hardly any hope to get justice. Hopefully this documentary will help them also, improve their lives and find them justice. We’re so hopeful that with this film the truth will come out, not just for us, but for the Chiong family also. We’re so hopeful with the film that Marty and Michael made. We put all our hopes in that.

Michael: I spoke to Sarah de Mas and she said the biggest travesty in this whole thing is that the world has been missing this wonderful man. They have been deprived of him. Even in prison he’s touching lives.

GIVE UP TOMORROW is an official selection for the World Documentary Competition and made it’s International Premeire at the 2011 TriBeCa Film Festival. For more information about the film or to learn how you can help Paco, check out the links below:

Sanela Djokovic is a writer living in the Bronx

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