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Meet the 2011 Tribeca Filmmakers | “Give Up Tomorrow” Director Michael Collins

Meet the 2011 Tribeca Filmmakers | "Give Up Tomorrow" Director Michael Collins

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. [Synopsis courtesy of the Tribeca Film Festival]

“Give Up Tomorrow”
World Documentary Competition
Director: Michael Collins
Producer: Marty Syjuco
Editor: Eric Daniel Metzgar
Directors of Photography: Joshua Weinstein, Michael Collins
Executive Producer: Ramona Diaz, Eric Daniel Metzgar
Composer: Adam Crystal
Co-Producer: Steve Bennett
Creative Consultant: Jenny Golden

[indieWIRE invited directors with films in the Tribeca Narrative, Documentary and Viewpoints sections to submit responses in their own words about their films. These profiles are being published through the beginning of the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival. To prompt the discussion, indieWIRE asked the filmmakers about what inspired their films, the challenges they faced and other general questions. They were also free to add additional comments related to their projects.]

Responses courtesy of “Give Up Tomorrow” director Michael Collins.

Errol Morris opening up new doc worlds…

When I was a teenager, documentary films started appearing on my radar more and more. In fact, after I saw “The Thin Blue Line,” I was hooked and actively started to seek them out. I saw docs as these windows into real lives and parts of the world that I would never have access to otherwise. Some made me realize how ignorant I was to so many global issues, but still, they always left me feeling empowered somehow, and closer to those portrayed. And with that, a growing sense of responsibility and knowledge that injustice, no matter where it occurs on the planet, affects us all. Over the years I started to see the importance of providing audiences an opportunity to walk in someone’s shoes for 90 minutes, and began to appreciate what a powerful tool these films could be to provoke conversation in communities and affect change.

Paco’s story…

In 1999 Paco Larrañaga was first sentenced to life in prison in The Philippines. He appealed to the Supreme Court and his family patiently waited for the decision, confident he would be released. But in 2004 the Supreme Court elevated his sentence to death by lethal injection. This is when I got involved. Paco’s brother-in-law (my producer Marty’s brother) told me the situation and asked if I could make a web animation depicting some of the injustices Paco suffered during his trial. Before agreeing to this, I researched exhaustively and eventually, was given a letter by “The Unheard 35” – they are Paco’s witnesses, classmates primarily, who were with him in Manila when the Chiong sisters went missing in Cebu, an entire island region away. Most of the 35 were never allowed to even testify. The letter expressed their outrage and frustration with the Judge, the media, and the Philippine public who had long ago tried and found Paco guilty despite the obvious proof otherwise.

The injustices I read about were shocking. I learned that Paco was 19 and had just moved to Manila when he was plucked from his life and put in jail where he had been for 7 years at that point. The letter moved me to tears. I was the same age as Paco and had moved to New York City seven years earlier. I thought about how much I had experienced, grown and changed in those years and couldn’t imagine how it must have been for him and his family. In that regard, I felt an instant connection to him. Although I had never made a feature film prior, I knew that this was a story I wanted to tell and film, the perfect vehicle to do so.

Approaching a sensitive subject…

Our goal was to focus on our key subjects’ – both alleged victim and victimized — plight as a way to bear witness and literally feel the impact of injustice, corruption and the resulting utter frustration and disappointment that they and other families with similar circumstances, experience. The film unfolds like a shadowy thriller with a sense of pending doom, creating an atmosphere of eerie dread where around every corner lies another startling discovery. This mirrored what we experienced to a tee: With each layer peeled came something jaw-dropping.

We were exhaustive in getting as many principals on camera but, we were adamant that ours wasn’t going to be 90 mins. of talking heads. Our production was equally exhaustive in sourcing out archival footage since the case was first took place over a decade ago. We wanted a balance between an intimate family portrait and an international cliffhanger. The result was an experience of two extremes: colossal corruption and its counterpart — the unrelenting fight for justice.

Initially, it was dealing with the mammoth task of compiling, organizing, and then going through a decade worth of court transcripts, newspaper clippings and looking at hours of media footage for research in four different languages. And because this case was so celebrated in the Philippines and Spain, there was a wealth of materials.

Filming Paco…

The biggest challenge during production was interviewing Paco, our chief subject, himself. For one, cameras were not allowed inside prison so we had to figure out a way to get one in, which eventually we did, along with a healthy stock of tapes. Getting tapes out wasn’t an issue because the guards didn’t search you on the way out. When we’d leave for the day, the camera was buried under ground in the yard in big zip-lock bags, which was less than ideal conditions for somewhat delicate equipment. There would be entire tapes that would be damaged because of dirty heads, the contents lost, and I wouldn’t know it until after I got home. This was doubly frustrating because every moment shot inside was so unique and priceless. Aside from this, sitting Paco down for the interviews was a huge challenge in itself. This is a guy who had been so burned by past media portrayals. A guy whose trust in the system, and most particularly in the goodness of human beings was completely shot to hell that it took months for him to open up to us, months before we could even pick up a camera and record him. Asking Paco about the facts was easy, but the second you asked him about his feelings, his guard would come up..

Since the general conception was that Paco was guilty, it was also hard to get some people to talk to us. We had to be very persistent to get facts out of police and prosecutors, since clearly some of them had something to hide and didn’t want to subject themselves to the scrutiny of interview. But in general, we gave everyone an opportunity to share their side because it was essential to the story.

Too scared to talk…

We also came across several people who were just too scared to talk to us about the case and warned us that what we were trying to do was dangerous. They advised us — and we tried — to stay under the radar. In fact there were a few interviews we conducted in Cebu that, once we finished, we took an immediate flight back to Manila, which to us was safer ground.

Representation and responsibility…

On a more human level, though, it was really hard to be so close to so much pain. The issues were constantly heartbreaking and the families, both of them, were suffering so deeply. It further reminded me of the responsibility to do a good job and do it fairly and accurately.

During our last trip to the Philippines in October 2009, we camped out in front of the prison in Manila for a number of nights, anticipating that Paco would be transferred to Spain at any minute. At about 3 am one morning, a group of SWAT officers showed up and entered the prison. Paco and his family were afraid of this because Paco would again be in the hands of the Philippine police who had been behind the whole frame-up. The hope was that Spanish officials would handle every step of the transfer, but it was out of their hands. Soon after a van sped out of the prison gate. We had no way of knowing if Paco was in the vehicle but we proceeded to the airport as quickly as possible, unable to catch up with the van. We gambled and booked ourselves on the first flight to Madrid later that morning, anxiously hoping that this would be Paco’s flight. After the final boarding call was announced, we got on the plane; I had my camera in hand and in walked Paco with his Interpol escort. We got the shot we were hoping for, but in doing so, nearly got kicked off the plane. The Interpol guards who thought no one knew about the transfer, were very unpleasantly surprised to see us there. It took about an hour of creative convincing to get them to allow us to stay on board.

Down the line…

Marty and I have a few things brewing but really, the immediate plan is to keep the focus on “Give Up Tomorrow” for now and hoping it finds as large an audience worldwide as possible. We are currently working with Cultural Front Productions and planning a worldwide outreach campaign to shed light on this case, as well as the larger social issues presented in the film.

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