ESQ&A

"There is no shelf life for truth": A Conversation With The Makers of Give Up Tomorrow

Marty Syjuco and Michael Collins on justice, Jacqueline Comes Home, and their new film Almost Sunrise.
IMAGE Thoughtful Robot Productions
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Paco Larrañaga's fight for justice has hit its second wind. Last month, following the release of Ysabelle Peach Caparas' Jacqueline Comes Home, public attention to the controversial case of the Chiong Sisters' murder was renewed. With it came a new audience for Give Up Tomorrow—the 2011 documentary that originally showed how the case was mishandled—and a new wave of support for the accused and imprisoned Larrañaga.

In light of their film's new life, we spoke to Michael Collins and Marty Syjuco, who together made Give Up Tomorrow. The filmmakers remain adamant about their cause and optimistic about finding justice, and are even thankful to Jacqueline Comes Home for sparking interest in the case anew. Here's what they had to say:

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ESQUIRE: Could you briefly bring us up to speed with the case of Paco Larrañaga and the Cebu Seven since you released Give Up Tomorrow? What has happend to the subject of your film after the credits rolled in 2011?

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MICHAEL COLLINS: Paco is still serving his sentence in Spain. He is able to work outside at times, but as we saw at the end of the film, he was transferred based on a treaty of prisoner exchange—and this is meant for a guilty person. So, despite Spain's rehabilitative attitude, Paco is still bound by the Philippines and his refusal to admit guilt for something he didn't do. Simply put: he remains a prisoner under the jurisdiction of the Philippines, and only they can pardon him.

MARTY SYJUCO: And as we disclose in the film, I’m related to Paco by affinity, so yes of course we continue to follow and keep a close watch on the case since the film premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2011.

ESQ: How do you feel about all this new attention on Give Up Tomorrow and its subject? Has public response to the film been different from when it was first released?

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MC: We’re thrilled that this new attention has revived the campaign, because now we can really focus on all of the "Cebu Seven" whom we know are as innocent as Paco. When we first premiered in the Philippines we were happy at how receptive audiences were. The media in particular embraced the film, some news reporters publicly apologized and tried to make amends for the sensational coverage and lack of investigative journalism that led to the injustice. It was wonderful for Paco’s family to finally have mounting public support, but it didn’t lead to his release. Still, this time the campaign has been ignited by the public themselves. They are the ones that made the film go viral online, they started a petition, and they are now taking ownership for seeing it through. It’s bigger than we ever could have imagined. It shows that there is no shelf life for truth; that as long as injustice endures, people will rise up in response.

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MS: To witness what is happening now, the public outcry of Filipino netizens seeking justice for the Cebu Seven…This is what we always hoped would happen. But sometimes things have to happen in their own time. It’s a lesson we’ve learned from Paco himself.

IMAGE: Courtesy of Michael Collins and Marty Syjuco
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ESQ: How and why do you think Jacqueline Comes Home was made and released today, years since your documentary and decades since the case itself?

MC: When I heard that the new film was in production, I was furious. Once again, I wanted to point to the mountains of evidence that this crime never could have happened the way the police said it did. I couldn’t wrap my head around it: How could anyone even consider making this film in 2018, given all the lives that have been destroyed in the wake of this case? I cannot fathom the motivation behind such a production, and I won’t speculate.

MS: We haven’t seen the film but we’ve read about it. It appears in many ways to be a response to Give Up Tomorrow, trying to question some very plain truths we revealed. We painstakingly fact-checked every bit of information we shared, not only because it is the responsible thing to do, but we had to because the film was being aired on PBS and BBC Worldwide News. I was very disappointed to hear that this new narrative film took a very different approach, and it’s basically a work of fiction.

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ESQ: Now that your film is a hot topic of debate on social media, and now that a film of an opposing view of the case has been released, there also seems to be a new wave of doubt on the impartiality of Give Up Tomorrow. How do you address the naysayers?

MC: How do you convince someone that the sky is blue? That the world is round? And how much energy should you really spend talking to those people? I prefer to talk to those who are ready to work together toward solutions. Towards justice for all involved, and that includes the Chiong Sisters. This has never been about "sides" for us; this is about a truth that is as plain as day. A broken system has victimized everyone involved in this case. It is so obvious to anyone who bothers to do even a little digging. And after spending seven years investigating, we could have made ten films about all the lies that were delivered in plain sight, all the injustices Paco and his co-accused have suffered. It’s time to let go of this fantasy that this group of mostly strangers conspired to commit such horrors.

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ESQ: On the flip side, by drawing attention to Give Up Tomorrow, the release of Jacqueline Comes Home has also roused new support for Paco and the Cebu Seven. Would you say that it’s a net positive?

MC: Honestly this film is a blessing, and all my inner fury towards all those involved has turned to gratitude and sympathy. Sometimes, it seems, it takes a minefield of lies to expose the truth.

MS: We are grateful for this new energy and are doing our best to channel it towards helping the Cebu Seven, who have now spent 21 years in prison for crimes they didn’t do.

IMAGE: Courtesy of Michael Collins and Marty Syjuco
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ESQ: Give Up Tomorrow had clear criticisms of the Philippine justice system and Filipino culture. Are things any better today? Are those criticisms still relevant, and why?

MC: There are seven innocent men still in jail, so I would say there is still some work to do. But it is the Philippine public who themselves are fighting to fix this, so in that sense, things are much better today.

MS: As you saw it unfold in Give Up Tomorrow, in 2008 President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo abolished the death penalty, saving not only Paco’s life but thousands of others on death row in Bilibid. Ten years later, our lawmakers are working aggressively to bring back capital punishment. And in this current political climate, we need to be very afraid

ESQ: Are you still holding out hope for real justice to be brought to bear?

MC: More than hope, we have faith now that justice will be served. This campaign is no longer a few voices struggling to be heard; it is a movement, and I see no other way for it to end other than with seven innocent men going home to their families for the first time in more than two decades.

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MS: We will never give up hope. The Philippines is a beautiful and complicated place, just like everywhere in the world. It is terrible that an injustice like this happened in plain sight two decades ago, but we are seeing now that people are not going to stand for it anymore. It’s inspiring!

"Each one of us now has the tools at our fingertips to share stories, and certainly with that comes great responsibility to share that which serves the greater good."

ESQ: Do you feel like you’ve accomplished what you set out to accomplish when you decided to make Give Up Tomorrow? If not, do you think you ever will?

MC: Our intention, first and foremost, was to share the truth. So in short, yes we’ve accomplished that. Of course, we hoped it would lead to a correction of this injustice and a further examination of flaws in a system that allowed for this to happen. We wanted it to inspire conversations that lead to action, so in some ways we have accomplished our goals, but there is still much to do.

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ESQ: Give Up Tomorrow, we think, is a great example of the power and importance of good journalism and good filmmaking. Can you talk about that power that you wield as a filmmaker, and responsibility that it comes with?

MC: Journalists are the watchdogs of our society—which is now more global than ever. That's what was so heartbreaking about this case as it unfolded in the late 90s: There were so many obvious lies and distortions being peddled, but no one stepped up to challenge them. No true investigative journalism was done. We have all witnessed the power of media to manipulate; when those behind the stories are more concerned with sales (or these days, clicks) than the truth. Each one of us now has the tools at our fingertips to share stories, and certainly with that comes great responsibility to share that which serves the greater good, and not just our personal desires.

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ESQ: What have you learned from making Give Up Tomorrow?

MC: So much of what I learned making this film, I learned from watching Paco and how he continues to handle all of this. The last time I saw him, I told him I was sorry that this ordeal was not yet over; that he and his co-accused were still stuck in a broken system. He told me that everything would work out in its own time—that they had the truth on their side, and that would eventually set them free. He also explained that he had to forgive everyone who did this, because otherwise that anger would destroy him. So, I have learned patience, I have more faith, and I’ve also learned about the power of forgiveness—that it is not for someone else’s sake, that it is essential to save our own peace of mind.

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MS: I've learned that media has so much power to galvanize real positive change in the world when handled responsibly and with integrity. But that's just a jumping-off point to give people the information and inspiration they need to take action.

ESQ: Can you tell us about your new Emmy-nominated film, Almost Sunrise? How is it similar to Give Up Tomorrow, in theme and in purpose?

MC: Almost Sunrise is a story of resilience and recovery. The film follows two U.S. veterans who struggle with depression upon returning home from service in Iraq. Fearing the pull of suicide, they embark on a 2,700-mile walk across America as a way to confront their inner pain. They have many adventures including an encounter with a native American healer named Wolf Walker. Ultimately, after learning to meditate, they discover the power to heal is within themselves.

Almost Sunrise is similar to Give Up Tomorrow in the sense that these men (and their families) are suffering because of a flawed system that has let them down. In both we follow individuals on a journey to help us all understand what it is like to experience the world from their perspective; to walk in their shoes. As we feel this human connection, we no longer see them as the "other," we see them as members of our own family who we feel a responsibility for.

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MS: And both films have been Emmy-nominated! Give Up Tomorrow was recognized for Outstanding Investigative Journalism, while Almost Sunrise was just nominated for Outstanding Current Affairs Documentary. But most importantly, both film have created tangible impact and positive change in our world.

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