There is a certain trace of nihilism attached to the title of Marty Syjuco and Martin Collins’s documentary Give Up Tomorrow. After all, its subject is as bleak and hopeless as a Lars Von Trier film. As facts snowball into one apparent truth, the title emerges as a mantra, ushering in a degree of survival, especially for Paco Larrañaga, the documentary’s subject and the public face of the Chiong rape-murder case.
“I think when you leave this film, you’ll wonder how could he survive, how could someone innocent, not just Paco but all the other innocent people, survive (in prison)? And what we learned from Paco, living in the present moment and just getting through one more day, was just inspiring for us. Even though the title seemed very negative, when you watch the film you can see that it’s really a positive advice that kept him going,” says Collins.
This is the case: On the stormy night of July 16, 1997, sisters Marijoy and Jacqueline Chiong were allegedly raped and murdered after they were kidnapped at a mall in Cebu City. The case became one the city’s most heinous crimes and the authorities were pressured to come up with suspects or at least a lead. The police then arrested eight men who were accused of the crime, one of whom was Paco Larrañaga, then a 19-year-old student at a culinary school in Manila. The trial went on for decades and became Cebu’s “mistrial of the century,” a public spectacle of our country’s faulty justice system and a catch-all of the media’s penchant for sensationalism.
Give Up Tomorrow shines light on a huge chunk of the story that was never told back then. The media, and in turn the public, had a part in convicting Larrañaga and his co-accused. They were made out as monsters capable of killing two girls out of lust and petty reasons. The film assembles hundreds of interviews and evidence that point out the glaring truth about the case that was overlooked by the prosecutors and the media: the innocence of everyone convicted of a crime interlinked with the most corrupt depths of our society. A haze of facts and shady evidence clouds the real nature of the case. And this is what Give Up Tomorrow addresses: a view of the Chiong case that spotlights an outrageous example of bullying stemming from racial tension.
“We wanted to try to clearly show all sides of the story, to give voice to some who hadn’t had a voice yet in the reporting that had been done on this, to show something fair and let the audience make their own decision. That was always our goal. We also didn’t want it to be a news piece. We wanted it to be a film. We wanted people to connect with the characters emotionally onscreen,” Collins explains.
“When we started digging deeper and learning details of the case, we realized you can’t make this stuff up. Nobody can write this up because it’s too crazy, it’s too unbelievable, and the only way to tell this story is to make a documentary,” adds Syjuco.
Stoking racial tension
Even before the conviction was handed out, Larrañaga was already guilty in the eyes of the public. He was a conyo, a privileged delinquent who happened to be a great-grandson of the late Philippine president Sergio Osmeña. His roots were the very ropes that strapped him helpless even though evidence proved that he wasn’t even in Cebu the night the crime took place, a fact that was pointed out by defense witnesses (all 35 of them) using logbooks, school records, and even photographs. The evidence and testimonies were dismissed, saying that these were from friends of the accused.
“The media presented Paco as this mestizo. It was no longer about the facts of this case but about what Paco represented: the whole history of being mestizo, a colonial past, and being related to the Osmeñas. That was the story that was selling headlines and much more interesting so people were just stoking that ethnic and racial tension constantly and facts were just getting buried,” Collins shares.
But with years of research, clarity and brevity, Give Up Tomorrow lets the people involved in the case speak for themselves. It refrains from being an overarching piece of didacticism or unleashing a torrent of information that dumps “facts” readily available for decades. From the opening scene that establishes Larrañaga’s take on the case up to his transfer to Spain to serve the remainder of his life sentence, the filmmakers painstakingly filter voices that eventually mold into a singular perspective of the case. But most of all, it challenges a nation whose notions of guilt and justice were twisted by unfair and biased reportage.
The film teeters, though, on a side that could render its effort useless: Syjuco’s brother is married to Larrañaga’s sister so accusations of bias emerged from some prior to the screening.
“I distanced myself mostly in the edit. The editing was really just Michael and our editor, Eric (Daniel Metzgar),” Syjuco says. “With the 400 hours of footage, it took them two years to edit. For me, I felt this was an opportunity, because I had this guilt, this was happening and I didn’t do anything. I guess I used the camera as a weapon. The true story was never out there. I also didn’t know Paco’s family very well. It’s just now that the film is done and they went to the premiere in Tribeca and we were together in some Spanish festivals, that I got to know them and spend real time with them.”
In a country that perceives personal connection to a subject as a form of corruption, Syjuco and Collins were just focused on doing their jobs as filmmakers, as champions and crusaders of truth.
“Our intention in making this film was to present the truth. We knew that once we did our job and once the people saw the film it wouldn’t matter. It wouldn’t matter if this film was made by his brother. The facts of the case were just showing the truth. It’s easy to say, if you haven’t seen the film, that there’s a family relation so it’s propaganda. But people who walk into the theater with that in mind always leave and say, ‘You know what it doesn’t matter anymore that you’re related to (Paco), because it’s presenting the truth,’” Collins says.
And as filmmakers who dedicated seven years of their lives working on this film, it’s encouraging to know that Syjuco and Collins don’t just see the controversial subject as a starting mark in their careers.
“We worked on this for seven years and we’re going to see it through the end. From distribution to outreach and eventually creating an impact,” says Syjuco.
A ripe time for change
After decades of discrepancies, doubts and disparaging images, the case is still an erroneous landmark in the face of our justice system. The Chiong case has been a playground for men and women acting gods, serving up crooked justice as they see fit. But ultimately, Give Up Tomorrow is about injustice, regardless of its form and who it takes in its undertow. After all, the Chiong family only looked for justice for their daughters and Paco’s family strived to undo the wrongs committed against him.
Like all the great documentaries that preceded it, Give Up Tomorrow is a manifestation of how the medium can serve as an instrument for social change, how it can create a spark that will ignite an impact greater than what the filmmakers realized. And with the changing social climate and the emergence of new voices in the media, maybe it’s about time that we looked back on a more tumultuous version of ourselves and reassessed our faults, prejudices, and accountability.
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For more information about Give Up Tomorrow, visit pacodocu.com where you can contact the filmmakers for screenings and interviews.
This article was originally published in The Philippine Star