Making its international premiere at the the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival, the documentary film ‘Give Up Tomorrow’ from director Michael Collins, documents the plight of 19 year-old Paco Larrañaga.
In 1997, 19-year-old culinary student Paco Larrañaga was arrested for the kidnap, rape, and murder of two sisters on the provincial island of Cebu in the Philippines. Despite demonstrable evidence of his innocence, including 40 eye-witnesses and photographs placing him hundreds of miles from the scene, Paco’s legal ordeal was only just beginning. Dubbed the Philippines’ “trial of the century,” Paco’s ordeal became a galvanizing focal point in a far-reaching exposé of gross miscarriage of justice at the highest levels.
Following the case and its aftermath for more than a decade, the filmmakers trace Paco’s story from the ethnic and class tensions at its roots, through a distracting thread of tabloid sensationalism, and ultimately to appeals and interventions from foreign governments and NGOs as the injustice of Paco’s situation becomes ever more stark and undeniable. At once a murder mystery, a courtroom drama, and a stunning indictment of national corruption, Give Up Tomorrow is an engrossing, enraging true crime chronicle.
Interview with director Michael Collins:
VIMOOZ: What drew you to the subject of this film?
MC: Marty (Producer Syjuco) and I had been friends for a few years when his older brother, Paco Larrañaga’s brother-in-law, asked for our help. I had heard about Paco, but until his sentence of death, everyone in the family was embarrassed to talk about it, and was 100 percent sure that the Supreme Court would overturn the verdict.
I had retained some skepticism – until I read the letter from the 35 “unheard witnesses.” I was in a café on New York City’s Lower East Side, and the letter brought me to tears. Paco was my age, and over that last seven years, while I had thrived, he waited, unjustly condemned to execution, in a horrific gang-run prison. There was no way to ignore the injustice; I had a background in video and had long believed in the ability of film to create social change. But it was only when I realized how passionate I had become about this story that I felt the power of the medium.
VIMOOZ: How long did the film take to make?
MC: In the fall of 2004 we went to Los Angeles to interview two of the letter writers who attested to Paco’s whereabouts when the crime was committed. They had left the Philippines, partially out of disgust over the case, but also haunted by guilt – the same guilt we would feel at our inability to reverse a clear and terrible injustice. At our LA meeting, the two broke down and wept over their powerless and failure to make anyone listen. They painted a backdrop of cronyism, corruption, and class-race conflict in the Philippines that made us realize this injustice was only the tip of a very deep iceberg. One month later we went to the Philippines for our first production shoot; we thought it would take four weeks, and we stayed there for four months. Altogether we’ve spent nearly 11 months in production in the Philippines over the past 6 years working on this.
VIMOOZ: Have the subjects of the film seen it? What did they think?
MC: Unfortunately there is no way for Paco to see the film because it is not allowed in the prison. But when we used to visit him in the Philippine prison we sometimes had access to a TV with a DVD player so we were able to share a few short sample scenes we had cut. It was always a very emotional experience for him to see the faces from his past, some friendly and some not. But what he loved watching the most were the scenes we shot with his family at the farm where he grew up. We worked with a remote control helicopter to get some aerial footage of the farm that was intercut, and Paco’s face would light up when he saw his family and the sweeping views of his old home. He would smile from ear to ear, and the rest of the visit he would spend laughing and sharing stories from his childhood. I always felt lucky to glimpse this side of him, a side that has been slowly fading over the years under the weight of the injustices he’s suffered.
Paco’s family has not seen it yet. They are all flying to New York for the World Premiere.
VIMOOZ: Has the film been seen in the Philippines? What was the reaction?
MC: The film hasn’t been seen in the Philippines as yet. But because we have been getting some media attention leading up to the Tribeca premiere, many Filipinos have seen the trailer and read about the film. In fact we were recently featured twice in a two-part series in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, one of the nation’s leading dailies. We are also turning up on Filipino and Filipino American blogs here and there. So far the public response is overwhelmingly positive. This is a huge relief to us because this has been such a controversial and polarizing case over the years, and Paco was generally perceived to be guilty. It’s so wonderful to see that people are open and interested in taking another look at this case from a new perspective.
VIMOOZ: Did the film have any impact on the Larrañaga case?
MC: Part of what our film highlights is the power of grassroots campaigning. Public support has certainly affected the course of this case in the past, and we hope it will once again. Our Tribeca premiere will also be the launch of our “Justice for Paco, Justice for All” campaign. We are currently working with Cultural Front Productions to orchestrate a campaign and forge partnerships with NGOs. People who see the film and are inspired to learn more can visit our website (GiveUpTomorrow.com) and join our email list. We’ll keep people posted on efforts to help Paco that they can support.
VIMOOZ: As a first time director, how do you feel being at Tribeca?
MC: I feel so much gratitude. After working six years on a film of course it is a dream come true to have such a high-profile premiere, but it’s not so much for myself as for the subjects of our film. So many wonderful, very private people, put their trust in us, and opened their lives to us at some of their most trying and emotional moments. This was a responsibility I did not take lightly; so getting into Tribeca was like winning the lottery for me. Now I know that their story will be ushered into the world properly.
VIMOOZ: Has the film been to other festivals/ will it be at other festivals?
MC: Tribeca is our premiere, and from there we are going to Hot Docs in Toronto and then, Sheffield Film Festival in England. Many other festivals have invited us to submit so we are hopeful we will have a strong presence on the festival circuit.
VIMOOZ: What has the experience of distributing the film been like thus far?
MC: Thus far, broadcast distribution has been secured. We were fortunate to get early support from ITVS, BBC and DR, so our US, UK and Denmark television broadcasts are firmed. And now we are very lucky to be working with Josh Braun of Submarine Entertainment for our domestic distribution, and we are talking to Annie Roney of ro*co Films for our International.
VIMOOZ: What are your hopes for this film?
MC: I hope that audiences worldwide will be as moved and inspired by watching this film as Marty and I were in making it. I hope it reminds people how precious the moments are we have with our loved ones, and how lucky we are to have our freedom. I hope people reflect on what it takes to maintain a strong democracy, and the responsibility that each one of us has to participate in order to safeguard the human rights of others. I hope people realize there is no place for the death penalty. I hope that Paco and his co-accused all get to spend Christmas at home this year, with their families.
VIMOOZ: What’s your next project?
MC: India holds a special place in my heart and I have a project in development, but for the foreseeable future I plan to focus all my energy on getting behind Give Up Tomorrow and our Justice for Paco, Justice for All tour.
Marty is already set to produce another documentary set in the Philippines directed by Ramona Diaz. It is based on the book Pacific Rims by Rafe Bartholomew.