LOS ANGELES—In their passion to shed light on what they believe is a case that reflects injustice—through their documentary “Give Up Tomorrow”—director Michael Collins and producer Marty Syjuco have earned a prestigious Emmy Award nomination.
“We started on this journey nine years ago and never imagined we’d be recognized alongside filmmakers we looked up to, and who inspired us to make our own film,” Marty said upon learning that they had snagged a nomination for best investigative journalism (long form) in the 34th Annual News and Documentary Emmy Awards.
The awards honor the best in investigative reporting, interview, documentary and breaking news. The nominations were announced by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Thursday in New York. CBS, PBS (which aired “Give Up Tomorrow”) and HBO led the over-the-air, cable, satellite and Internet nominees with the most nods.
Marty—who was born in Manila, grew up in Vancouver, Canada, and graduated from De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde in Manila— and Michael, struggled to get their film made. “Give Up Tomorrow” examines the trial of Paco Larrañaga, one of the suspects in the kidnap-murder of students Joy and Jackie Chiong in Cebu, Philippines in 1997—as a microcosmic look at judicial corruption.
Paco, a man of dual Filipino and Spanish citizenship, is serving a life sentence in a prison in Spain, where he was transferred from the New Bilibid Prison under a prisoner exchange treaty signed by the Philippines and Spain.
Since the docu premiered in the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival and romped away with the Audience Award, it has brought Michael and Marty to festivals around the world. The film won awards in these festivals and from human rights organizations.
The film made its US broadcast premiere on PBS last Oct. 4, as part of the 25th anniversary season of POV, a series acclaimed for showing international docus. Also shown in theaters in the Philippines, the film was released on DVD by First Run Features through Amazon.com and www.GiveUpTomorrow.com. It was executive produced by Filipino-American filmmaker Ramona Diaz, Simon Kilmurry, Sally Jo Fifer and Don Young.
October 1, the date when the winners in various categories will be announced in a ceremony at the Frederick P. Rose Hall, home of Jazz at Lincoln Center in the Time Warner Center in New York, is an auspicious one for Michael. It’s his birthday. Below are excerpts from our e-mail interview with Marty, who is based in New York.
When, where and how did you learn about your Emmy nod? How did you celebrate?
We never expected the fantastic news! I was anxious about the nominations announcement, which was to come out online at noon. My stomach was in knots all morning. So on my lunch hour, I hit the public pool at the neighborhood park in Brooklyn, to focus my energy on breathing.
After I dried off, I found 15 text messages on my phone. I burst into tears and ran to share the good news with Michael. It was such a humbling moment. It made us appreciate how far we’ve come.
What does this mean to you?
It means the world—actually, the universe! By telling Paco’s story, we hoped we could play a part in starting a necessary conversation about our broken justice system. We all know it’s flawed… a broken system that Filipinos have no choice but to accept.
We all know that the nightmare that happened to Paco and his co-accused can happen to anyone. So Michael and I tried to do our part, by sharing Paco’s story with the world.
Paco remains in prison, despite public opinion, the clear truths and the efforts of many good people. [This] Emmy nomination may be a validation for a job well done.
How is the Free Paco Now campaign?
Two years ago, we launched the campaign asking the Spanish government to take action on Paco’s behalf – and they just did! We sent thousands of signatures and letters to the president of Spain, and e-mails to members of the European Parliament—more than 15,000! The Spanish government did their own research on Paco’s case, and a few days ago, they announced that they were formally requesting pardon for Paco. This request will go directly to President (Benigno) Aquino (III).
We just launched a brand new Free Paco Now signature campaign at Change.org [addressed to] President Aquino (www.change.org/petitions/free-paco-now).
Has Paco Larrañaga heard this news about the nomination?
Yes! We were most excited to share the news with him. His first question was, “What’s an Emmy?” He’s been in prison for 16 years, since he was 19. So we explained it to him. He was pretty awestruck.
What was Paco’s reaction to the news that the Spanish government was seeking clemency for him?
He is extremely grateful and happy. He told his family that he hoped this would be the beginning of the end of [his] nightmare. His sister Mimi was in the Basque Country visiting Paco when the news broke. It was [good] for him to have family around to share the good news with.
What were your most challenging experiences while making “Give Up Tomorrow”?
One of the biggest was to find the truth in this incredibly complex and outrageous story. There are so many victims. The Chiong sisters disappeared; nobody knows what happened to them. Paco and his coaccused were … sentenced by a judge who later committed suicide. Then the Supreme Court sentenced them to death. It’s such a bizarre, multilayered story. Our challenge was: How in heaven’s name could we narrate it properly?
We decided to let the two sides speak for themselves, and to give voice to Paco and the dozens of witnesses who weren’t allowed to testify during the trial. Through documentary filmmaking, we allowed them to be heard.
The first step was making the film—and to make sure it was as fair and unbiased as possible. The next step was to find distribution. Navigating the world of film distribution was really challenging. You’re up against big studios and Hollywood films with their explosions and computer-generated effects. Just because you make a film doesn’t mean anyone will watch it. And finding an audience is always difficult. Thankfully, we [won] 18 international awards—that certainly helped us get attention!
We were fortunate to secure key broadcast deals with the BBC and then POV, the acclaimed documentary series on PBS/American television. What followed was an indie filmmaker’s dream: TV broadcast far and wide, in France, Spain, Denmark, Sweden, The Netherlands, Israel and New Zealand.
As a proud Filipino filmmaker, my grandest award (more than an Emmy!) would be for the film to play on TV screens across the Philippines.
What are your next projects?
We’d like to bring “Give Up Tomorrow” to universities and colleges across the country—especially law schools! The film has played extensively in Manila and Cebu, but not yet in the provinces. A campus screening tour throughout the Philippines would be phenomenal. We’re also currently organizing an Asian tour with Amnesty International around key cities in Asia, with stops in Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia and Taiwan during World Day Against Death Penalty in October.
Meanwhile, we just submitted our first proposal to the Sundance Documentary Film Program. Hopefully, we won’t take seven years to finish the next one!
(E-mail the columnist at [email protected] Follow him at http://twitter.com/nepalesruben.)