Cebu rape-murder case docu in NY fest

Ruben V. Nepales in Los Angeles/Philippine Daily Inquirer
Asia News Network

Los Angeles (Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN) - “Give Up Tomorrow," which chronicles the trial of Francisco Juan “Paco” Larrañaga—who was arrested in 1997 for the murder of two teenage sisters in Cebu—makes its debut as an official selection in the 10th Tribeca Film Festival.

The film, directed by Michael Collins, who also produced it with Marty Syjuco, is among the 12 entries competing in the World Documentary section of the festival founded by Robert de Niro, Jane Rosenthal and Craig Hatkoff. Twelve films are also vying in the World Narrative section in the festival which runs from April 20 to May 1 in lower Manhattan. Festival organizers announced that the selections were made from a record number of 5,624 submissions.

Collins, Syjuco and cinematographer Joshua Weinstein followed the trial of Paco who, with six others, were convicted of the kidnap, rape and murder of Marijoy and Jacqueline Chiong. The Larrañaga family and friends maintain the innocence of Paco, who they claim was in Manila when the crime happened. Paco is serving a double-life term in San Sebastian—on account of a prisoners exchange treaty between Spain and the Philippines. Paco, a dual citizen of the two countries, was 19 years old at the time of his arrest. He was previously held at the New Bilibid Prisons in Muntinlupa City.

Marty is Paco’s brother-in-law. In an e-mail interview, he answered our questions about how this close relationship with Paco decided the approach that he and Michael would take from the get-go.

Marty, who moved from the Philippines to New York in 2000, described the film, thus: “Simultaneously a murder-mystery and an exposé of endemic corruption in post-Marcos Philippines, ‘Give Up Tomorrow’ looks intimately at the trial of Paco ... Capturing how a rapacious media circus stoked ethnic and class hatred to prejudice public perception, the film reveals the extraordinary judicial violations that resulted in Paco’s death sentence. Secret filming from Paco’s cell exposes the appalling conditions of Filipino prisons, where thousands like him languish without fair trial."

The docu, six years in the making, was shot in Cebu, Manila, San Francisco, LA, New York, London, Barcelona, Madrid and San Sebastian.

Michael, who makes his full-length feature film debut with “Give ...," is the founder of Thoughtful Robot, a production company dedicated to making social-justice films that promote change. Last year, he, Marty and the film’s editor, Eric Metzgar, participated in Sundance Institute’s Documentary Edit and Story Lab, which supports filmmakers during post-production.

For one intensive week, the trio worked on “Give ..." and met with established editors and directors, including Sundance founder Robert Redford, who discussed the rough cut and gave feedback. Coincidentally, Fil-Am director Ramona Diaz, who serves as the docu’s executive producer, also attended the Lab with her own film, “The Learning."

We met Marty, Michael and Ramona for the first time at the Sundance Film Festival several years ago. Recalled Marty in our e-mail exchange: “We were still in production then and couldn’t talk openly about the film. It’s great that, three years later ... we’re doing our first interview with you for this film. To have our world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, our hometown, is a dream come true."

Excerpts from our interview:

How did you get involved in telling this story?

Michael Collins (MC): In 1999, Paco was sentenced to life in prison. 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. That’s when I got involved. Marty’s brother told me the situation and asked if I could make a web animation depicting the injustices that Paco suffered during his trial.

Before agreeing, I did as much research as possible. I was given a letter by “The Unheard 35”—Paco’s witnesses who were with him in Manila when the Chiong sisters went missing in Cebu. Most of them were never allowed to testify. The letter expressed their outrage and frustration with the judge, the media, and the Philippine public who had turned against them.

The injustices I read about were shocking. I learned that Paco was 19 and had just moved to Manila when he was put in jail, where he had been for seven years at that point. The letter moved me to tears. I was the same age as Paco and had just moved to New York City seven years earlier. I thought about how much I had experienced ... in those years. I couldn’t imagine how it must have been for him and his family. I felt an instant connection to him and a sense of responsibility to help him find justice.

Although I had never made a film before, I believed in the power of documentaries and knew that that was our best chance of getting his story out to the world. So Marty and I decided to take a leap of faith and soon found ourselves on our way to the Philippines armed with a new camera, some microphones ... filled with hope.