The film of Michael Collins and Marty Syjuco on the trial of Paco Larrañaga, one of the suspects in the 1997 kidnap-murder of sisters Joy and Jackie Chiong in Cebu, is taking surprising twists and turns
LOS ANGELES—A slot on TV’s oldest and prestigious showcase for indie nonfiction films, the audience award at the Tribeca Film Festival and a theatrical release were not even in the minds of Michael Collins and Marty Syjuco when they began planning their documentary, “Give Up Tomorrow,” eight years ago.
But now, the duo’s film on 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 wrongful convictions and injustice, is taking surprising turns and twists.
“Give Up Tomorrow” will be shown in Metro Manila cinemas at Robinsons Galleria and Robinsons Ermita from Oct. 3 to 9; and at Ayala Greenbelt 3, TriNoma and Alabang Town Center from Oct. 5 to 7.
“It’s not every day that a documentary opens theatrically in the Philippines, and we relish this opportunity,” said Marty, (the film’s producer), when we talked to him and Michael (the director) one recent blustery afternoon in Battery Park, New York.
By coincidence, “Give Up” also makes its US broadcast premiere on PBS on Oct. 4, as part of the 25th anniversary season of POV, a series acclaimed for showing international documentaries. (More details about “Give Up’s” airing schedule on http://www.pbs.org/pov/giveuptomorrow.)
Also on Oct. 4, the film will be released on DVD by First Run Features through Amazon.com and www.GiveUpTomorrow.com.
Below are excerpts from our interview with the two filmmakers:
You’ve screened the film all over the world. Where did you have the most interesting reaction from the audience?
Marty Syjuco (MS): Our world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival last year was really something special. We had over 30 guests who flew in from all over, many of whom appear in the film. Among them were Paco’s family and his lawyer, Sandy Coronel, who came from the Philippines. The Spanish journalist featured in the film flew from Madrid. The human rights experts came from London. It was completely sold out, and the energy in the room was electric.
Paco’s parents got the biggest reaction of all—a standing ovation from the audience. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house… Tribeca presented a baseball cap for Paco, signed by his idol Robert De Niro.
Michael Collins (MC): We premiered in the Philippines last July at the Cinemalaya Festival to the most enthusiastic audience we’ve ever had. Admittedly, we were a bit nervous about bringing the film home because, for 15 years, the public perception has been that Paco is guilty. But it couldn’t have gone better. The screenings were sold out with extremely vocal crowds reacting to every twist and turn, gasping and shouting at moments.
The media reaction was extraordinary—many who were once against Paco were suddenly his biggest advocates. We actually had to extend our trip to two weeks to accommodate interview requests from media and the public demand for more screenings.
What was the most surprising reaction or comment?
MS: At Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival, we met the big guy himself. I was awestruck and speechless. I knew he saw our film because he personally programs the festival. I remember nervously shaking his hand, and before I even got to thank him, he was the one thanking us!
Another surprising moment was last October in Geneva when we were invited to screen on World Day Against Death Penalty. Ruth Dreifuss, the former president of Switzerland, watched the film and cited Paco’s case as a powerful example of wrongful convictions that happen all over the world, and (that) there is no room for death penalty anywhere.
MC: At the end of our Philippine premiere, we had an incredible one-hour discussion with the audience. When we started to say goodbye, one last hand was raised. The man who stood up was Hubert Webb, a man who was exonerated after 15 years in prison. He shared (with us) how he related to what Paco and his family were going through, and finished by thanking us for bringing the film to the Philippines. He said, “The best defense we have for injustice is making people aware of what’s really happening.”
What are your hopes and thoughts as the film goes on theatrical release in the Philippines?
MC: What we’ve learned from the audience and media reaction in the Philippines is that everyone is now ready to take a look at the case from a fresh perspective. So many people have approached us, especially Cebuanos. They tell us that they were once against Paco, but now they want to help him find justice. We really hope viewers will approach the film with an open mind and be willing to ask themselves, as Nadia Trinidad from ABS-CBN did, “What if you only knew part of the story?”
MS: In the Philippines, we’ve only had a handful of public screenings: at Cinemalaya and UP. We just had our Cebu premiere last Sept. 26. We’re now gearing up for our commercial screenings in Metro Manila next week. We are excited beyond belief! Both our Cinemalaya screenings were sold out and it was sad to turn people away. Now, the public in Manila will be able to see the film.
We’d love to prove that there is an audience for documentary films in the Philippines and that docs can be as entertaining as fiction films. There are so many incredibly talented Pinoy filmmakers making documentaries: Ditsi Carolino, Monster Jimenez, Joanna Arong and, of course, Ramona Diaz who is releasing the documentary about Arnel Pineda and Journey next year. Documentaries are cool and hip now.
Even Raymond Lee is producing a documentary. We also hope for more screenings in the Philippines. We don’t have a studio backing us. We’re doing a DIY release. We don’t have the resources or the machinery. So, if anyone has ideas for more screenings, please be in touch.
With the airing of “Give Up” on POV, what do you think are the elements of the film that will appeal to audiences all over the US?
MS: POV is an award-winning, critically acclaimed documentary series on PBS that has been around for years. In fact, this year they are celebrating a huge milestone, 25 years! We are so honored to be part of this anniversary season. PBS audiences are sophisticated and smart, and I know the film will entertain. We crafted it to play like a thriller, with elements of a murder-mystery and crime drama. Fans of “Law & Order” and “CSI” will appreciate (it). It’s also a personal story of two mothers fighting for polarized versions of justice. We can’t wait for our US broadcast premiere on Oct 4. We are literally counting down.
MC: After screening the film all over the world, in more than 60 festivals in over 30 countries, we were blown away by how personally the audiences connected to this story. While this film is set in the Philippines, at its heart is a family’s struggle to save their son, something we can all relate to. And US audiences are quick to point out that there are many wrongful convictions here, too, as evidenced by the hundreds of innocent people exonerated—thanks to the incredible work of the Innocence Project—many of whom were previously sentenced to death.
Making this film and seeing it through ups and downs must have tested your friendship. How did you weather the various challenges that enabled you to still be speaking to each other to this day?
MC: In a project of this scope where we were doing everything for the first time and the stakes always felt so high, it’s natural for stressful situations to arise. Unfortunately, at times we would take it out on each other. So I won’t pretend that we didn’t have tough times working together—in fact there were many! But more than that, I know we make a great team and neither of us could have done this on our own.
MS: There were a lot of dark times where things seemed hopeless either for Paco or for the project, so what I loved most about working with Michael was that I had someone to stop and celebrate with the little victories along the way. Without that, I don’t think we would have endured all these years and seen the film to completion.
On a personal note, what was the most valuable lesson you learned from this entire experience?
MS: Do I have to pick just one? In our eight-year filmmaking journey… the best one is that when you see or experience a wrongdoing, you must take a stand! I used to be afraid to get involved, happy to stay within my safe boundaries. But now, I’ve realized that we must all fight injustice. That’s what I like most about our film—that we show how this family not just endures the injustice, but actually fights back. In our case, we picked up a camera. Our camera became our weapon to fight injustice with, and to create impact and change. Film, especially a doc, is an incredible medium for social change.
MC: I learned that there are a lot more good people in the world than bad. Even though our film focuses on a very tragic situation, it’s been inspiring to see people come together to do good in reaction to it. We saw this time and again in the Philippines, where we shot for more than six years, and it continues all over the world.
In fact, an amazing young woman from Ireland, Gráinne McHugh, saw the film on the BBC and decided to take action. She and her dog Finbarr embarked on the Camino de Santiago in Spain to raise awareness for Paco’s cause. They trekked 350 miles, representing the distance between Manila, where Paco was in cooking school, and Cebu, where the Chiong sisters were last seen.
Of all the awards that the film has won, which one means the most to you?
MS: We never thought we would win 15 awards. Do I really have to choose just one? It’s like being asked to choose a favorite child. Our four human rights awards are really special, and the Activism Award from Michael Moore was huge for us. But for me, the most memorable was the Audience Award at Tribeca. Our families were with us and when they announced the award, we were all jumping up and down. And then suddenly, the whole crowd was chanting “Free Paco now!” It was such a surreal moment.
Jane Rosenthal, the co-founder of Tribeca, presented the award to us. Tribeca is a huge festival with hundreds of films, mostly narrative fiction. To be chosen as the top film of the entire festival is still unbelievable to me. It’s the most special because it’s the first one.
MC: Winning the Audience Award at the San Sebastian Human Rights Film Festival in Spain was undoubtedly among the best. This is the very town where Paco is currently incarcerated. He was given permission to attend the awards ceremony and the mayor of San Sebastian presented the award to Paco himself. This was such a special moment, but also heartbreaking. After Paco’s taste of “freedom,” we then had to watch him go back to prison.
What’s the most practical thing you’ve learned from attending a lot of festivals?
MC: I quickly learned how important it is to use social media to help fill the seats prior to arriving at the festival. There are so many great films at each festival that you have to work hard to stand out. So we would reach out to local Filipino organizations (they are everywhere!), human rights groups (such as Amnesty International), and university students who we felt would be interested in the film. It was a great way to not only promote the film, but to meet amazing people in each new city we visited. And we made it a point to always put up photos from festivals on Facebook to stay connected with all the supporters who are now taking this journey with us.
MS: I’ve learned quite a lot from all the festival travels we’ve made. We’ve really enjoyed seeing the world and experiencing new cultures. And sampling different cuisines! Our travels have taken us to places we would probably otherwise never reach in our lifetime, like Kosovo, Latvia and Croatia.
Other practical things are: pack light, hydrate liberally, and take melatonin to help regulate your sleep cycle. It’s no fun waking up in the middle of the night and not remembering where you are.
You have experienced the challenges of first-time documentary filmmakers. What advice can you give folks who also have material or subject matter that they are raging to make into a documentary, a situation that you were in just a few years ago?
MC: I would say first and foremost to stay focused on story and characters, and allow the issues of the film to emerge organically. Some documentaries are so focused on an issue that they fail to engage the audience on an emotional level. This can really limit the film’s exposure. I recommend reaching beyond documentary films for inspiration. See what elements work best in great fiction films, even novels and music, and how they can apply to your work.
MS: This doesn’t feel like our first film because we’ve been doing it for so long! But you’re right—it’s our first feature which we started in 2004. My best advice for novice filmmakers is to persevere. If you are passionate about your project and you believe in what you’re doing, stay steadfast and true. That’s why we never wavered in our journey; we knew we had to make this film. And both of us were committed to see it through to the end.
Some of our grants took years to attain and we had to apply over and over again, until we finally received the funding we desperately needed. It took the BBC almost a year before they came on board as a co-production partner. So, my advice to filmmakers who have embarked on their own filmmaking journey would be to stay focused, committed and to persevere. Don’t give up.
What’s next for you?
MS: I am going to focus all my energies on distribution and outreach in the Philippines. I feel that with our Metro Manila screenings opening on Oct. 3, we’ve only just begun. I want to take the film to the provinces, to schools and universities all over, especially colleges of law and schools of journalism. The students will be the next generation lawyers, judges, justices, policy makers, activists, artists, journalists and leaders. I hope our film can inspire them to create a better Philippines. Because right now, the future is bright for them. And they will be our agents of change.
MC: After traveling nearly non-stop on the festival circuit for the past 18 months, I am finally settling back into the edit room in New York City to cut a series of shorts that are companion pieces to our film. These webisodes will be available on our website, www.GiveUpTomorrow.com very soon. In December, we hope to start production on a new documentary. I can’t say too much about it yet because we’re in the early stages of development, but we might find ourselves back in the Philippines next year.
E-mail the columnist at [email protected] Follow him at http://twitter.com/nepalesruben.