Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Sparking Change: How the Documentary "Give Up Tomorrow" Got Made

Give Up Tomorrow is a documentary that tells the story of how Paco Larrañaga was wrongfully convicted and sent to prison for a crime he did not commit. Producer Marty Syjuco reveals the making of that documentary and how first-time filmmakers beat the odds to bring Paco’s plight known to the world. 

Film poster of Give Up Tomorrow

Filmmakers Marty Syjuco and Michael Collins already had an ending in mind when they first embarked on the project that would eventually become the documentary Give Up Tomorrow. It was the image of Francisco “Paco” Larrañaga being released from prison, finally a free man. They imagined him being able to travel with them as they screened the film in festivals around the world, answering questions and sharing his story to curious viewers.

This would not be the case. Fifteen years since he was arrested for the kidnap, rape and murder of Marijoy and Jacqueline Chiong, Paco is still behind bars. The now 35-year-old has only seen Give Up Tomorrow once, when the filmmakers were invited to the San Sebastian Human Rights Film Festival in Spain earlier this year.

“Next to bringing the film home and showing it at Cinemalaya, this was the most crucial screening,” Syjuco says. “Because that’s where he is.” Amazingly, Paco was given permission to attend the film showing. Over 600 people saw the documentary at the beautiful Victoria Eugenia Theater, a converted opera house. In the audience were the warden and authorities of the prison where Paco was being held. 

“They had heard about Paco’s case and claims of innocence, but I imagine they deal with a lot of prisoners who say they are innocent. But after watching it, they came to that conclusion themselves, and finally understood [the case]. They realized that it was a wrongful conviction. After that, they started treating him better. They no longer require him to admit his guilt as part of the process for parole. Because in a system that works, you’re in prison because you’re guilty [of something]. And so as part of restorative justice you have to admit guilt. But there’s no rule for the innocents in jail.”

Just the Facts

People have always expressed outrage over the conviction of Paco Larrañaga and seven of his co-accused, but never has the indignation been more pronounced and the severity of the injustice more understood than until after Give Up Tomorrow was released. An issue that was slowly disappearing into the mists of history was suddenly thrust back into public consciousness and given new life through a film that urges viewers to rethink what they know about the case.

The documentary is the first effort of producer-director tandem Syjuco and Collins. Syjuco is related by affinity to Paco; his brother Jaime is married to Paco’s sister Mimi. There’s no way to skirt around the implied bias, but the filmmaker has always been upfront about the connection, even electing to place a disclaimer in the film’s credits to further illustrate that his intentions go well beyond filial obligations. “We wanted people to form their own opinions,” he says. “There were so many rumors and so much speculation, so we decided to just stick to the facts.”

Syjuco was born in Manila but migrated to Canada when he was seven years old. He came back to the Philippines in the early 90s and finished college in De La Salle University, after which he studied film in New York in 2000. He took a job at Focus Features where he learned the business aspect of filmmaking, including booking and distribution.

“I felt guilty that I never got involved before,” he says. “I followed [the case] from a distance. I was living in Manila then, going to school, partying. I was in wrapped up in my own world. It was really only when I moved away that I matured, and when I started to be more aware of the world around me.”

That awareness included the case involving Paco, who was 19 years old when he was arrested in Manila for a crime that happened 565 kilometers away in the island of Cebu. Syjuco had never really met Paco before but knew of his not-so-favorable reputation in the Southern city for isolated incidents of youthful indiscretions. The filmmaker says he was inspired to “do something” when the Supreme Court sentenced Paco to death by lethal injection in 2004. That court decision elevated the double life imprisonment handed down by a Cebu court in 1999.

“This was happening to my brother’s wife’s family,” Syjuco says. “It was devastating for them. I never really understood. Of course I knew Paco wasn’t in Cebu [when the crime happened], and people told me he was innocent. But I didn’t know firsthand. It was only through the course of making this film, when we conducted our own investigation, spoke to the witnesses and interviewed over 100 participants [involved in the case], that we came to our own conclusion. There’s no way that Paco could have done it. And not only Paco, but the others as well. They were innocent and they were all framed.”

Inside Prison Walls

Armed with a desire to right a grave wrong, Syjuco and his filmmaking partner Collins set out to make the documentary. But being-first time filmmakers, they needed direction and guidance. They found these in Ramona Diaz, the person behind the critically acclaimed Imelda. “We were lucky because there were a lot of Filipino filmmakers in New York at the time,” he says. “Like Ditsy Carolino, Raymond Lee, Nana Buxani. We had a lot of mentors and friends who became our advisers. Ramona was especially crucial and generous.”

An old photo of Paco Larraña behind bars (image courtesy of Give Up Tomorrow)

Syjuco says that in the beginning, it was a real DIY effort to make the film. The pair invested on a video camera, which they paid for using their own credit cards, and learned how to operate it on the plane to Manila for their first shoot. They stayed with family, borrowed cars and basically got by through “the kindness of friends,” approaching the project more as investigative journalists than filmmakers. A day after they landed, they immediately went to see Paco, who was on death row in the New Bilibid Prisons in Muntinlupa City. There was even a power outage when they went inside the prison.

“Conditions [there] were terrible,” Syjuco reminisces. “It was built for 8000, but there are over 20,000 inmates. Death row was the worst. The [inmates] were not treated well, not even [as] humans.” The filmmakers knew they had to see Paco and get him to tell his story because they realized he was never given a voice throughout the trial. He was not allowed to testify, and neither were his witnesses, who would have said that they were with Paco in Manila when the crime was taking place in Cebu City. 

“It was important for us to meet him again after many, many years and to spend time with him. We started visiting regularly. Media coverage [during the trial] was always very pro-Chiong. Paco’s story was never heard.” 

In order to circumvent Bilibid’s very tough rules on interviewing inmates and filming inside prison walls, the filmmakers decided to smuggle a camera inside. It was only one of the many challenges they faced in order to tell Paco’s story.


While it was easy to schedule interviews with Paco’s family and friends, Syjuco knew they would need to get “the other side” for the documentary to make sense. Surprisingly, it was not that difficult to gain access to the victims’ mother, Thelma Chiong. 

“Mrs. Chiong is very savvy and seasoned with the camera,” he says. “She’s very sanay (used to it). Basically our approach was that we were making a documentary film about the case, that we spent time with Paco and his family, and asked if we could also spend time with [her].” 

Because of the high-profile nature of the case there was a lot of archival news footage of interviews with Mrs. Chiong. Syjuco gathered as much news footage as he could and noticed that in interviews, the grieving mother would start bawling and invoke the memory of her daughters anytime she was asked a question she didn’t like. “People would back off. We wanted [the chance to] question her and challenge her.”

While it proved to be easy getting the Chiong side to talk, the real task, according to Syjuco, was getting access to the prosecution lawyers and the police involved in the case. “Remember we were trying to talk to people who were hiding things, and who were possibly complicit in the frame up. So why would they talk? And so they didn’t.” It was only through sheer persistence that the filmmakers finally broke through and got the interviews. 

“Many doors were closed, but we would just keep coming back, year after year. After a while I think they just got tired of us,” Syjuco says with a smile.

Domino Effect

Slowly, the documentary began to take shape. Syjuco knew though that in order to make the documentary they wanted, they would have to work with professionals in the filmmaking process, particularly editing, and that meant needing serious money. What started out as guerrilla filmmaking would eventually require a hefty investment from funding agencies. They learned the process from documentarian Diaz and began writing proposals and applying for grants. 

“As first time filmmakers, we got shot down left and right,” Syjuco says. “We were constantly discouraged. But whenever we felt that way we just thought of Paco, how he was spending 10, 12, 15 years in prison, wrongfully convicted. So we kept at it. We kept developing the treatment and the narrative and our footage was getting better and better. Until eventually, we got our first grant, from the Jerome Foundation.” After this, more agencies started paying attention and soon, they received funding from the likes of Sundance, the BBC, Tribeca and PBS.

The film’s logistical requirements necessitated shooting in three continents: Manila and Cebu in the Philippines; New York and San Francisco (where Paco’s sister Mimi Larrañaga is based) in the US; and London (where the offices of Amnesty International and Fair Trials International are located), Madrid and Barcelona in Spain in Europe. Syjuco reveals that the cost of the whole film is somewhere around P500,000. 

“You have to consider though that the film was made over a span of seven years. Most of that budget went to editing, because the best editors command such high fees. It’s really a skill and an underrated craft.”

Sparking the Discussion

Give Up Tomorrow premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York in April 2011, where it won the Audience Award and a Special Jury Mention for Best New Documentary Director. From there, the film has been screened in more than 50 film festivals around the world and has won numerous citations and awards, including Best Documentary at the Anchorage International Film Festival and Audience Awards from the Sheffield Doc/Fest in the UK, Antenna International Film Festival in Sydney, Australia, and the Valencia Human Rights Festival and San Sebastian Human Rights Festival, both in Spain. In the Philippines, the documentary was first screened at the Cinemalaya Film Festival in July 2012. It has since received a commercial run in theaters such as the Ayala Malls, Robinsons Galleria and Gateway Cinema, something rare for a documentary and even rarer for a non-Hollywood production.

Filmmakers Marty Syjuco (left) and Michael Collins (right) with Robert De Niro at the Tribeca Film Festival (photo courtesy of Marty Syjuco) 

“I’m not an activist,” Syjuco says. “I don’t have the skills or experience to go out and campaign. But this film isn’t just about Paco, it’s about all of us and our very broken justice system. I’m hoping that through this documentary, by experiencing the story of Paco, we’ll realize that there are many other Pacos out there. What about the guy off the street, the cigarette vendor who was also framed and not given a fair trial, not given due process and who doesn’t have the means to a proper lawyer or legal team, but just thrown and rotting away in jail? I’m hoping that this film will raise those questions and spark that discussion.”

At the same time, Syjuco also believes that Paco was used as an example by the powers-that-be to demonstrate how “justice” can and should be meted out to the rich and the privileged. He says that while it is true that we live in a country where the rich have gotten away with murder, it’s no reason to punish the truly innocent. 

“[Paco] paid for the sins of so many before him,” he says. “I hope Filipinos will do something, whether it’s for Paco and the co-accused, for the justice system, and for all of us.”

“I also know that this isn’t an overnight thing,” he adds. “It’s going to take time.”

This story originally appeared in the December 2012 issue of Lifestyle Asia magazine