Give Up Tomorrow is the debut documentary from American filmmaker Michael Collins. It tells the story of 19 year old student Paco Larranaga who with several other young men was arrested for the rape and murder of two sisters in the Philippines in 1997. Despite strong evidence of Paco’s innocence he was convicted, imprisoned and sentenced to death by a questionable judicial system. In this brilliantly executed documentary, Collins takes us chronologically through the extraordinary story of this “trial of the century”.
Michael Collins has spent the last 13 months travelling the world with his award winning film, and kindly took the time to answer a few questions for us.
Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions for Rialto Channel!
Firstly, how did you hear of Paco Larrañaga, and what appealed to you about his story?
In 1999 Paco Larrañaga was first sentenced to life in prison in The Philippines. He appealed to the Supreme Court and his family patiently waited for the decision, confident he would be released. But in 2004 the Supreme Court elevated his sentence to death by lethal injection. This is when I got involved. Paco’s brother-in-law (my producer Marty’s brother) told me the situation and asked if I could make a web animation depicting some of the injustices Paco suffered during his trial. Before agreeing to this, I researched exhaustively and eventually, was given a letter by “The Unheard 35” – they are Paco’s witnesses, classmates primarily, who were with him in Manila when the Chiong sisters went missing in Cebu, an entire island region away. Most of the 35 were never allowed to even testify. The letter expressed their outrage and frustration with the Judge, the media, and the Philippine public who had long ago tried and found Paco guilty despite the obvious proof otherwise.
The injustices I read about were shocking. I learned that Paco was 19 and had just moved to Manila when he was plucked from his life and put in jail where he had been for 7 years at that point. The letter moved me to tears. I was the same age as Paco and had moved to New York City seven years earlier. I thought about how much I had experienced, grown and changed in those years and couldn’t imagine how it must have been for him and his family. In that regard, I felt an instant connection to him. Although I had never made a feature film prior, I knew that this was a story I wanted to tell and film, the perfect vehicle to do so.
How long did the film take to make?
It took us about seven years to make the film. I think our limited experience definitely slowed us down in the beginning, but also the story itself was still unfolding as we were shooting. Our approach was to treat it like investigative journalism and talk to everyone involved in the case from all sides. Often one interview would lead to another, and so on. We also spent quite a bit of time tracking down people who didn’t really want to be reached, and convincing people to talk to us who at were very reluctant or afraid to participate due to the controversial nature of the case.
This is a very well known, controversial case in the Philippines - did you experience any resistance or difficulties while shooting in the Philippines?
Since the general conception was that Paco was guilty, it was hard to get some people to talk to us. We had to be very persistent to get facts out of police and prosecutors, since clearly some of them had something to hide and didn’t want to subject themselves to the scrutiny of interview. But in general, we gave everyone an opportunity to share their side because it was essential to the story.
We came across several people who were just too scared to talk to us about the case and warned us that what we were trying to do was dangerous. They advised us — and we tried — to stay under the radar. In fact there were a few interviews we conducted in Cebu that, once we finished, we took an immediate flight back to Manila, which to us was safer ground.
Give Up Tomorrow is a courtroom drama, a film about a miscarriage of justice and political corruption, but there’s also a very human side to this story told by the two families involved; Mrs. Chong, the mother of the two murdered sisters, and the Larrañaga family who are desperate to see Paco get a fair trial. It’s clear from the facts presented in your film that Paco should never have been convicted, was it difficult then to remain objective towards Mrs. Chong who campaigned so extensively to have Paco executed?
At times I would have to remind myself the Chiongs were the first victims in all of this. Their two daughters went missing in July of 1997, and we can never fully understand how they suffer from that loss. My intention was always to give the Chiong’s the space and opportunity to tell their side of the story. We remind the audience throughout the film that the Chiong sisters are also victims of a broken justice system. What complicates this tremendously is that Mr. and Mrs. Chiong began telling lies and using their political influence to interfere with the judicial process as far back as the investigation. In Mrs. Chiong’s desperation to hold someone accountable for her daughter’s deaths, she became one of the greatest obstacles in uncovering the truth. Her grief seems to have clouded her judgment, and sadly her behavior has directly contributed to the suffering of all the young men accused of this crime and their families.
The film had its international premiere at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival and has since travelled the world collecting an impressive list of awards. How have audiences reacted to the film and has it had any impact on Paco Larrañaga’s case?
The response to the film has been overwhelmingly positive so far. We have shown it all over the world, and what I’m most excited about is that even though the film is set in the Philippines, it is resonating with audiences everywhere on a deeply personal level and inspiring very passionate responses. From the response the “Free Paco Now” campaign has emerged (www.FreePacoNow.com).
We have definitely seen some very encouraging improvements in Paco’s situation over the last year. In fact, last month we brought the film to the San Sebastian Human Rights Film festival in Spain, this is the very town where Paco is currently incarcerated. Paco was given permission to spend a few days outside prison to attend the festival. When he took the stage at the Victoria Eugenia Theater the sold-out crowd of 600 gave him a standing ovation. It was the moment we've dreamed of for years.
What made the experience even more special was the next night we won the Audience Award, and Paco came on stage to receive the award with us from the mayor of San Sebastian. Paco was all over the media and we landed on the front page 2 days in a row. Paco was in the best spirits we have ever seen him. It was particularly difficult for him go back to prison after these days of "freedom" but he said he now has more strength than ever to keep fighting. Photos from the entire trip can be seen on our Facebook page.
Has Give Up Tomorrow been screened in the Philippines?
Not yet, but we are very excited to finally be bringing the film to the Philippines towards the end of July 2012 as part of the Cinemalaya Film Festival. We feel the film can have the greatest impact in the Philippines by calling attention to the flaws in the justice system have left thousands of others, just like Paco, wrongfully imprisoned. It is our hope to help launch a local Innocence Project in Manila. The Innocence Project has already been successful in getting hundreds of wrongfully convicted exonerated through DNA testing in several countries including the USA.
Paco’s story is quite simply, unbelievable and Give Up Tomorrow is an absolutely riveting, suspenseful watch. Did you recognize from the beginning that this story would make for such a tension filled documentary, or did the tone of the film emerge during editing?
We knew early on that this story contained all the elements of a compelling thriller, but our challenge would be figuring out how, as first-time filmmakers, to bring our vision to life. My favorite documentaries are those with a strong story and characters at the core; with a narrative arc much like great fiction films. So our approach in the edit was to craft something that would not simply expose the injustices perpetrated, but to actually have the audience experience them first-hand by connecting with the characters and walking in their shoes. Admittedly this proved to be quite challenging and we sought the help of many experienced filmmakers along the way including Eric Daniel Metzgar. We were very fortunate to be invited to participate in the Sundance Edit and Story Lab at a particularly challenging time during the edit, and it helped tremendously. Finally, after spending two long years cutting away, we emerged with a film that I know we will always be proud of – one that we hope will both entertain audiences and inspire action for years to come.
What’s got your attention now? What are you currently working on?
After travelling nearly non-stop to festivals for the past 13 months Marty and I are finally setting back into the edit room here in New York City for a while to cut a series of short films that are companion pieces to Give Up Tomorrow. Those will be available on our website very soon. And in November we hope to start production on a new documentary feature project. I can’t say too much about it yet because it is in the very early stages of development, but we will very likely find ourselves back in Asia for much of next year.
Thanks so much for taking the time to have a chat; we’re thrilled to be playing Give Up Tomorrow here on Rialto Channel.
Thank you for this wonderful opportunity. We are thrilled to be sharing Give Up Tomorrow with audiences in New Zealand. We look forward to hearing from everyone once they see the film though our Facebook page and Twitter.
Give Up Tomorrow screens on Thursday 21st June at 8.30pm on Rialto Channel.