Finishing a documentary like Marty Syjuco and Michael Collins’ documentary, Give Up Tomorrow, when it is dependent on the ‘life’ of a prisoner, can seem to have no end. This is why the documentary, whose production started in 2004, took nearly eight years to complete. Daily life, within bars and within this frame, presents a twisted mundaneness, and is in a sense dependent on this compilation of footage to save a life, or at least its dignity.
The film opens to a dead-on close up shot of a brutish Spanish mestizo, who reveals to you that he has been framed. Disbelief is warranted, perhaps even welcomed, and the whole premise of the film starts to weigh heavy on the reversal of your preconceptions. When the “antagonist” speaks, and when you recall him on newsprint and television being the ruthless murderer of two Cebuano girls, a thick wall of resistance forms between the audience and the film.
After all, his face alone signifies that audience pity is counter-intuitive. Larrañaga ought to been able to protect himself through his whiteness, his lineage, and the extended power of his racially privileged community. He belongs to the section of society whereby the fist of the law turns into a soft handshake. To invert our understanding of a caste, he belongs to the ‘untouchables’—while we, the audience, on the other hand, are not as invincible.
So for a film like this to suggest that the judiciary system can be turned over with a counterargument steeped in “privilege for privilege” might easily be interpreted as elitist propaganda. But what Give Up Tomorrow really presents, is something else entirely. It presents a decision anybody would make, and does so brilliantly.
The two filmmakers stand on stage, years older from when they first set out to film Larrañaga. Syjuco is noticeably nervous. It is hardly its first screening: ‘Give Up Tomorrow’ has won awards in last year’s Tribeca Film Festival, and has even been shown around the world, including the Spanish town where Larrañaga is now held. Syjuco explains his nervousness as a result of screening it where the yoke of the film was largely set—that’s an uncommon response, given the reverse for most local directors. Someone from the audiences asks a follow up question, “Why haven’t you screened it here before?” Syjuco looks up at the crowd, and says, “because this is the first time we’ve ever been invited.”
Here is the story of what we now know as the Cebu scandal of the century. Two Chiong sisters go missing on July 16, 1997. When one Chiong corpse surfaces, life immediately hits bottom for Paco Larrañaga, a Cebuano bad boy who at the time had been studying in Manila to be a chef. With Paco suddenly becoming the main suspect, the Chiong parents drag him to the depths of hell, with media lighting the otherwise the dark tunnel to his conviction. There is no redemption.
But, as Larrañaga says in the film, “If you want to give up, give up tomorrow, and then tell yourself that again the next day.”
Give Up Tomorrow exists to change the ending. Of course, in turn, this film seems rightfully one-sided, not because they are groping for support into their side of the story, but because theirs have hardly been heard.
And as great documentaries like this can accomplish, the reversal begins. We discover, jaws collectively dropping, that even the most privileged are not spared from the malice of the Philippine judiciary system. (And if they aren’t, a friend of mine laments, then imagine how many more of the socially unprivileged are confronted with experiences that are exponentially worse.) By the time we reach this conclusion and feel a reluctant kinship, we have already discovered the overwhelming evidence of his innocence, of which even fence sitters cannot deny. Larrañaga simply wasn’t there when the murder happened, and the finger points clearly at the ugly face of political authority. The law, from the police to the legal court proceedings, was flawed, immoral, and hypocritically criminal.
Yet, in the process, it postulates mercilessly that the Philippine nation was unfair to Larrañaga. And that more forgiving parties, such as a later Spanish intervention was to prove one of his saviors. Suddenly, the newspapers like the Cebu Daily News referred to Larrañaga as ‘foreign’ (in quotes) in their headlines, and suddenly it dawns on us: not only are Philippine legislative bodies the accused, but the blame also turned to the Philippine public, for our inability to see through the ‘false’ reportage, and for our relentless casting of stones at a clearly innocent man.
This is not an unintentional flaw of the film, but rather, its achievement. Give Up Tomorrow brings up questions of how defensive we have been as an intellectual postcolonial society, and how vulnerable we can still be. We say we don’t trust the media, but many times we don’t question what it presents because we are hung up on distancing ourselves from praising our old colonizers when it is convenient. And even admitting that this may be a fair point is hard for us to accept. So in a sense, this film delivers two ideas: the sham that is the Philippine judiciary system and the face value of our preconceptions.
The best documentaries challenge. The best and most challenging documentaries point at a righter truth, and though I refrain to sound overly preachy, they help us point at ourselves. Larrañaga will never be a face to warm up to, inasmuch as the law never does. But when we see that justice is necessary, we grip handles of our seats, and, with shame and fatalism we demand his freedom—or at least the freedom of our own morals.
[Make sure to catch Give Up Tomorrow's screenings in cinemas located in Metro Manila and Cebu from October 3 to 9. Screenings of the documentary in Cebu will only be held in SM Cebu. Find out more on http://www.facebook.com/giveuptomorrow