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‘That can happen to my brother’

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‘That can happen to my brother’

By: - Super and 2BU Editor / @pajammy
/ 05:19 AM August 04, 2012

MARTY and Michael in Manila. JILL LEJANO

After the second Cinemalaya screening of “Give Up Tomorrow,” Super sat down with Michael and Marty in an empty Cultural Center of the Philippines  theater to talk about Paco, their motivation and what comes after “Give Up Tomorrow.”

How does it feel to finally bring the documentary here?

Marty: We’ve been doing this for about 15 months, traveling the world with the film and bringing it wherever we’re invited. I feel all that was just practice to bring it to the Philippines. Ultimately, we knew, I knew as a Filipino that it was all about bringing it home. I was a little nervous, I wasn’t sure how it would be received. But we’re ecstatic.


Michael: The day we picked up the camera and started shooting, we always envisioned showing it here. This is where we were meant to show it. It’s kind of funny that it’s taken us so long to get here but it’s always been our intention.


The audience’s reaction today was intense. Is it the same at every screening?

Marty: It was much more vocal here. It felt like it was personal, people were taking it personal here. I guess people are familiar with the injustice and the corruption and they can relate and it’s very close to home.

Why did you decide to make the film?

Michael: Marty shared a letter from the Unheard 35, 35 of Paco’s witnesses who were frustrated because their voice wasn’t heard. They laid out in this letter all the injustices that they suffered through the whole process.

When I read that, I felt such a connection to Paco. He had been in jail for seven years at that point. I moved to New York seven years earlier and I thought about how much I had grown and changed in all those years, and I thought of him and his coaccused and how they were sort of plucked from their lives, if in fact this was true.

I said to Marty, we should try and make this into a film. The things I was reading, you can’t make this stuff up.


There was an injustice that I knew no one else was really paying attention to and it’s a universal story other people could relate to all over the world.

We did a couple of interviews with Paco’s witnesses who were living in California, a sort of preproduction to see if there was a story there. We realized that what we read in the letter was just the tip of the iceberg.

Marty: For our first production shoot, we came for four weeks and four weeks became four months. We just stayed on and on and on.


How hard was it shooting the film? What were your biggest challenges?

Michael: What was difficult was we were approaching it as sort of an investigation so we didn’t have a set production schedule. We knew we wanted to reach all those involved in the case, we wanted to tell every single side. The prosecution, the Chiongs, the Llarañagas, the witnesses, the police, so we were working very hard to secure those interviews, which was not easy. One interview would lead to another and lead to another. Every time we came to the Philippines—we probably came five times—we’d plan to be here a certain amount of time and it would inevitably be three or four times that long for each trip.

Marty: The challenge was getting access. We had access to Paco’s family but there were many people who were afraid to talk. We would ask them and they would deny our request. The next year, when we came back, we would try again, and I think they just got tired of us and just granted the interviews.

It’s a story with a lot of the underbelly. There’s a lot going on so understandably not everyone wants to get involved.


In another interview you guys mentioned that people were warning you that what you were trying to do was very dangerous. Did you really feel that danger?

Michael: I think that journalists put themselves in situations that are much much more dangerous than we ever did. We were warned. We were precautious, we were careful. We tried to stay under the radar, we tried to be quiet.

When we did certain interviews that made us feel uncomfortable, that felt like we were exposing ourselves too much, after the interview, in Cebu for instance, we’d go to the airport and go back to Manila.

Marty: We felt vulnerable in prison especially early on when we would visit. Shooting in prison was a big challenge. But eventually, we visited enough times that we actually felt comfortable and safe.

One year it happened to be Michael’s birthday and I asked him how he wanted to spend his birthday and he said, “I want to spend it in prison with Paco and the others.”

MICHAEL and Marty during the Q&A at CCP. JILL LEJANO

Marty: We’ve really been lucky. Audiences really react positively. We always like to do a Q&A and connect and meet with the audience. Most of the audience, 99% of the audiences always stay for the Q&A.

I’ve been to other films where half the audience leaves, nobody’s really interested in listening to the filmmakers, but with us, everybody has questions.

Michael: It’s a film that many people can relate to all over the world. This kind of injustice is happening in the US right now. There are elements of the case that are fascinating that people always want to talk about.

On an emotional level, people can relate to it because they think, “That can happen to my brother. That can happen to my cousin.”

Or people will come up to us and say, “That did happen to my brother.”

We get a lot of that. That’s what’s been so nice about bringing the film all over the world.

Paco was finally able to see the film in the festival in San Sebastian. When was this and what was it like for him?

Marty: This was in March, just a few months ago. We were invited by the San Sebastian Human Rights Festival. They organized everything, they requested permission from  prison officials if Paco could attend. Not only did Paco attend, but the prison warden and his teachers in the prison, they all came. I think that was a big turning point.

Michael: All the administrators were there. It was funny because Paco was up there onstage and everyone knew that he had to go back to prison. The audience didn’t know that the prison administrators were there. They were like, “We don’t want you to go back.” or “We’d bar the doors to the theater and keep you in here.” It was really funny.

Marty: It was really special. At that festival we ended up winning the audience award. The mayor of San Sebastian awarded the prize to Paco. We ended up on the front page of the newspaper the next day and the headline was “Paco says, “Finally, I won something.”

How has his family reacted? When was the first time they saw the film?

Marty: At our world premiere in Tribeca. They all came.

Michael: It was the first time that the family’s story was told in such a public venue and they were there to witness it. They didn’t know how people were going to react. They were just overwhelmed. They said, “We feel like we’re surrounded with so much love for the first time in 14 years.”

What Mimi, Paco’s sister, shared with us is that it’s given them the opportunity to heal in a way that nothing has before. Mimi was here for the premiere last week and she said to be here in the room in the Philippines, where everyone is seeing this side of the story, she said it’s the most healing that’s ever happened.

STANDING ovation at Cinemalaya

Michael: Going into this story, I didn’t know that Paco was innocent. When I read that letter, I thought, this guy sounds like he’s innocent but we really made sure that we learned that on our own and weren’t just taking people’s word for it. We had to discover that for ourselves.

And the more that we learned, our belief that he was innocent never wavered.

Then we realized, “Oh my god, it’s not just Paco, all these guys are innocent.”

Even the state witness is innocent. This couldn’t even have happened the way the police said it happened. They totally made this up. It’s clear as day. The further we got into it, it just strengthened the fact that he was innocent.

The filmmakers behind the documentary “Paradise Lost” came out with sequels as the case of the West Memphis Three was evolving. When Paco’s case develops, will you do another film?

Marty: That’s a really good question and I’m glad you brought that up because it’s the “Paradise Lost” trilogy that inspired us. We got to meet the filmmakers, we got to meet Jason Baldwin, one of the film subjects, at an awards ceremony earlier this year.

Michael started to get emotional and cry because we studied those films. I’m not opposed to it. We always thought that our film’s last scene would be Paco coming out of prison into his mom’s or his sister’s arms. But it hasn’t happened.

Michael: In the meantime, what we’re going to do is work on a series of webisodes. We have about 450 hours of footage and we’re going to do a series of shorts and to put that up on the Internet as companion pieces to this. We may not do a sequel but we’re gonna try to get more information out about the story that didn’t fit in the film.

Ultimately, what do you wish to achieve with the film?

Marty: We’re no activists. We’re not human rights experts. We’re filmmakers. Ultimately, that’s why it was important for me to bring the film to the Philippines, I hope that the film can inspire people to take a stand, to make sure that this doesn’t happen to other Pacos, to future Pacos. I hope the film can be used as a teaching tool in schools, for students. That would make me really happy.

Michael: Of course there’s piece of us that wants to see these guys all get justice—not just the Chiong 7 but the Chiong sisters. But I think, ultimately, we’d just love to see the film be used to inspire change.

What do you want people to take away from the film after they watch it?

Michael: That they need to take an active role in protecting the human rights of each other. That we can’t just take everything we read at face value. That we need to question things. You need to participate in a democracy  to keep it strong. We’d love for people to understand the important role that investigative journalism plays in safeguarding human rights. That’s sort of a part of the justice system. It’s what keeps it in check. And when that doesn’t happen, things sort of fall apart.

Yoko Ono has been promoting the film—how did she get involved?

Michael: One of the artists who contributed to the soundtrack, her name is Yuka Honda and she’s in a band called Cibo Matto. She also plays in the new Plastic Ono Band.

Marty: Yuka came to our world premiere and then shared the film with Yoko and right away, Yoko had tweeted it.

Michael: I think this film really spoke to her and she decided she was not only going to make people aware of the film, but she really focused on Paco’s cause and make people aware of the injustice that he suffered. She has, I think, a million and a half Twitter followers. She has a really loud voice. It was really overwhelming when she did that.

“Give Up Tomorrow” will air in the US on PBS on Oct. 4. The DVD will also be released in October. The documentary is also expected to have a theatrical run in the Philippines. Students who wish to screen “Give Up Tomorrow” in their schools can contact the filmmakers at

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TAGS: “Give Up Tomorrow, ” Paco Llarañaga, Cinemalaya 2012, Marty Syjuco, Michael Collins, Tribeca
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