SDGLN exclusive: Q&A with producer Marty Syjuco, who made the documentary with his longtime partner, Mike Collins
NEW YORK – “Give Up Tomorrow,” an astonishing documentary about an outrageous miscarriage of justice, comes to PBS on Thursday, Oct. 4.
Produced by Marty Syjuco and directed by Mike Collins, a longtime gay couple living in Brooklyn, N.Y., the documentary is part of the 25th anniversary celebration of the “POV” (“Point Of View”) series on PBS.
The documentary won the Audience Award at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival and has captivated audiences around the world, including in the Philippines, where the judicial system failed spectacularly in a double murder case.
“Give Up Tomorrow” exposes the corruptness of the Filipino judicial system, the ineptness of its police force and criminal investigators, the stunning lack of evidence in the case, bribery, cronyism, the racial and economic divide within the country, and so many other issues.
In an exclusive interview with San Diego Gay & Lesbian News, Marty Syjuco describes how he and his partner spent more than seven years to complete the project that was fraught with danger and risk. They smuggled a camera into prison so they could get footage from behind bars, and had to figure out ways to get the tapes safely out of the country. They also had unprecedented access to the two central figures in the documentary:
• Paco Larranaga, a 19-year-old college student from a prominent Spanish-Filipino family in the Philippines who is framed for the presumed rape and murder of two Chinese-Filipino girls, whose family wielded important political connections to the nation’s president.
• Mrs. Chiong, mother of the missing girls, who manipulated the Filipino media to her advantage and befriended the one and only star witness who confessed he was part of the killings.
Syjuco said he was helped by his family connections – his brother is married to Paco’s older sister – and their status as mestizos -- a mixed race group that traditionally dominates the social and political circles in the Philippines.
SDGLN: Why did you get involved in the making of this documentary?
Marty Syjuco: In 1999 Paco was first sentenced to life in prison. He appealed to the [Philippine] Supreme Court and his family patiently waited for the decision, very confident he would be released. But in 2004 the Supreme Court elevated his sentence to death by lethal injection. I was living in New York City at the time, having moved from the Philippines four years earlier. My brother Jaime, who is married to Paco’s sister Mimi, told my partner Michael and me what was going on. We felt we had to try to do something and making a film seemed like the best way to get his story out to the world.
SDGLN: How did your connections to Paco’s family help you?
MS: When we began production in 2004, I hardly knew Paco. He's eight years younger than I, and I met him for the first time at my brother's wedding. Shortly after Paco was arrested, I moved to New York to study, and I watched what was happening from a distance. During our production phase, we would fly to the Philippines about once a year and spend months on the ground doing our own investigation while shooting and conducting interviews. This was when we got to know Paco's family, visiting their farm and realizing their ordeal. We also spent lots of time in the maximum-security prison getting to know Paco. It took us months before he trusted us to start shooting his interviews. So my connection to Paco is really just what got us the access we needed to this family who had been misrepresented by the media time and time again.
SDGLN: How did you get all that incredible footage from the mother of the girls who went missing?
MS: Mrs. Chiong was very open to speaking with media and granting interviews. This case made her a very high-profile public figure in Cebu so she was easy to contact. Because we are based in New York City, some interviews to be done by local crews when we were not there. But my partner, Michael, the director, conducted the last interview with her himself. She even allowed him to go with her to the courthouse when she was trying to block Paco’s transfer to Spain. It was shocking to see how freely she would speak and behave in front of the camera, even whispering into a judge’s ear right in front of Michael. Her lack of consequential thinking was indicative of how the Philippine press never challenged her or looked at her through a critical lens.
SDGLN: Has this film been seen in the Philippines and, if so, what has the reaction been?
MS: Yes, we premiered in the Philippines in July at the Cinemalaya Festival to the most enthusiastic audience we've ever had. Admittedly we were a bit nervous about bringing the film there because for 15 years the public perception has been that Paco is guilty, but it couldn’t have gone better. The screenings were all sold out and ended with standing ovations. The media who once crucified Paco are now his biggest advocates. We actually had to extend our trip by two weeks to accommodate the requests from media and the public demand for more screenings.
The film has now begun screening in law schools around the country, which for us is truly a dream come true because it's the students who are the agents of change. Next week I am heading back to Manila because the film is about to be launched commercially in theaters in early October, coincidentally the exact same time we are premiering on US public television on POV.
SDGLN: What is the one thing that you want viewers to come away with after seeing the miscarriage of justice?
MS: We hope that viewers will emerge from this film feeling a kinship towards all the victims they meet onscreen and realize that this injustice could happen to anyone, anywhere. We have seen firsthand how the film inspires people to take action to not only undo this injustice, but to prevent more of its kind from happening all over the world – and for us this is the greatest possible response.
SDGLN: Did they ever find the bodies of the missing girls? Why do you think the judge convicted the young men of murder without any eyewitnesses or physical evidence?
MS: No. There was one body found but her identity remains in question. The police eventually said it was Marijoy Chiong, but DNA testing has never been allowed. And the body of Jackie remains missing to this day.
It’s hard to speculate about the judge’s motivation but he was clearly under a great deal of pressure, which he freely admitted, from the not only the public, but from the president of the Philippines.
SDGLN: Please explain the racial divide in the Philippines, and how it factored in the convictions.
MS: Racial tensions go back centuries in the Philippines. Historically, it has had two foreign overlords, and inherited much from each of its colonizers. Spain “discovered” and claimed the islands in 1521, and then sold them to the United States for $20 million in 1898.
Since independence in 1945, mixed-race Spanish-indigenous Malays, known as mestizos, have ruled the country. Endemic cronyism and corruption have further advantaged this entrenched class, eroded the social fabric, perpetuated poverty and undercut institutions that protect human rights. The inevitable result is a general resentment of mestizos by majority Malays and Chinese-Filipinos.
Putting a member of the political mestizo elite, like Paco Larrañaga, on trial for the heinous crime of rape-murder feeds into long-standing class and racial antipathies – especially when the victims are Chinese-Filipinos.
SDGLN: Where did the prosecution find their “star witness” Davidson Rusia, and why was Mrs. Chiong so chummy with the man who confessed in the killings? Why was Rusia set free afterward the trial?
MS: Rusia was known in Cebu as a petty criminal and drug addict. He had been twice convicted of felonies in the US where his mother lived, and he fled to the Philippines to avoid jail time. He was arrested at the mall where the Chiong sisters were last seen about 10 months after the alleged crime. The police were desperate because they still had no direct evidence against Paco and the group of boys they had already rounded up. After a few days in detention, and reportedly being tortured by the police, Rusia confessed to the crime and agreed to become the state’s witness in exchange for immunity and his freedom, which he was swiftly given. This offer had been made to three of Paco’s other co-accused who were also tortured by police, but they refused their offers. Without Rusia’s eyewitness testimony the prosecution only had very weak circumstantial evidence and would not have gotten a conviction.
Mrs. Chiong’s fondness for him and their relationship remains very perplexing. Only days after he admitted participating in her daughters’ rape and murder, she was photographed bringing him gifts in jail. Their relationship continued long after the trial ended. In many subsequent interviews the Chiongs openly discussed their ongoing friendship with Rusia, including how they often gave him money and gifts including a motorcycle. It is only now that the film has come out that they are denying this relationship, but there is overwhelming proof of it from years of media coverage.
SDGLN: Each step of the way, the Filipino judicial system failed Paco and the other young men who were convicted in the rape and murder of the two Chiong sisters. Has anything changed since the international uproar over the convictions?
MS: A great deal has changed regarding Paco’s situation, but that is all because he is a dual citizen of the Philippines and Spain (his father is a Spanish national). Spain has applied a tremendous amount of political pressure on the Philippines over the years to resolve the injustice, along with many international organizations including Amnesty International, Fair Trials International and the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. This all led to a prisoner exchange treaty that allowed Paco to be transferred to a prison in Spain. But the Philippines retains jurisdiction over him and unless the president of the Philippines grants Paco clemency, he will have to serve out his sentence in Spain. We are hopeful that with the renewed interest and visibility of the case in the Philippines, something positive will result for Paco and his co-convicted.
SDGLN: Did the abolishing of the death penalty in the Philippines have anything to do with Paco’s case, or was it a coincidence?
MS: Amnesty International in Spain made Paco their poster boy in their fight against death penalty. The daily newspaper Qué raised hundreds of thousands of signatures to save him, which were delivered to the Spanish congress. Spanish politicians went to the Philippines to visit Paco and to meet with the Philippine president on his behalf. Even the king of Spain was seeking justice for Paco, and personally spoke to then-President Gloria Arroyo about Paco.
In June of 2006, Philippine President Gloria Arroyo abolished the death penalty on the very same day she left for an official state visit to Spain, it also happened to be the king’s feast day. She presented the signed law to the king as a present, saving Paco’s life as well as the nearly 1,200 others on death row in the Philippines.
SDGLN: Where is Paco now? Does he have any chance of freedom?
Paco is currently in prison in San Sebastian, Spain. He was transferred there under a prisoner exchange treaty between Spain and the Philippines with the condition that he serves out his life sentence. The penal system is different in Spain and very geared towards rehabilitation and reintegration into society, so it allows convicts more privileges such as permission to leave the prison for a few days a month, and to leave at times for work or school. Unless the Philippines grants Paco clemency, the best he can hope for are these conditional tastes of “freedom” that the Spanish system allows.
SDGLN: How has this project changed your life?
MS: For the past eight years this has been so much more than just working on a film for us; it was our lives. When we began we had no idea what we were getting into. There were many times when we felt so in-over-our-heads that weren’t sure we could pull it off. So it’s been very satisfying to see it through from concept to completion, to see all the lives that have been affected in a positive way in the process, and look back on all the lessons we’ve learned over the years.
Right now I feel tremendous gratitude that I’ve been able to take this journey and discover my passion for documentary filmmaking – and on top of that to be able to do it all with my partner.
SDGLN: What’s next for you?
MS: After traveling nearly non-stop to festivals for the past 18 months we are finally settling back into the edit room here in New York City for a while to cut a series of short films that are companion pieces to “Give Up Tomorrow.” Those will be available on our website very soon. And in December we hope to start production on a new documentary feature project. I can’t say too much about it yet because it is in the early stages of development, but we might find ourselves back in Asia for much of next year.
SDGLN: What challenges do you face working with a partner Michael Collins, who directs the documentary, on a professional level?
MS: 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, and unfortunately at times we would take that out on each other. So I won’t pretend 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. 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 with whom to stop and celebrate the little victories along the way, too. Without that I don’t think we would have endured all these years and seen the film to completion.
“Give Up Tomorrow” has its national broadcast premiere on the “POV” (Point of View) documentary series on PBS on Thursday, Oct. 4, at 10 pm. (Check local listings.) It can also be seen on the POV website from Oct. 5 to Nov. 4.
Ken Williams is Editor in Chief of SDGLN. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, @KenSanDiego on Twitter, or by calling toll-free to (877) 727-5446, ext. 713.
At left: Paco Larranaga (the tall young man at the right) speaking in prison in the Philippines.