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Docu feature indicts legal system

By Dennis Clemente

NEW YORK—People may easily brush off “Give Up Tomorrow” as one of those true-to-life crime stories that only gets TV airtime on slow Friday nights: A man is accused of a heinous crime even if witnesses say he’s miles away from the crime scene. Yes, it’s that kind of story.

But wait, there’s more, a lot more; it’s a passion project filmed over the course of six years in three continents and four countries—all about one Paco Larrañaga, the young Filipino man languishing in jail for over 13 years, most of it spent in his birthplace, the Philippines before his eventual transfer to another prison cell in Spain, his father’s homeland.

Paco is in jail for the murder and rape of two Filipinas, but the docu-feature states otherwise. One would also need to watch this knowing the film’s producer Marty Syjuco is the brother-in-law of the accused man. However, it may precisely be because of the producer’s relationship with Paco that the film overflows with so much material in defense of the accused.

From the hundreds of photos, news archives, clandestine prison footage and surreal courtroom scenes, director Michael Collins succeeds in weaving a tight narrative – one that paints both an intimate portrait of Filipino families fighting for justice and another that broadens its appeal for an international audience, as it exposes and indicts the Philippine legal system.

The story unravels in July 16, 1997—the date that pops in and out of the movie frame as the day that would forever alter the lives of Paco, his immediate family members and the Chiong family whose two young daughters suffered a cruel fate. Marijoy and Jacqueline disappear outside a mall. Two days later, a body is found, badly beaten and raped, later said to be Marijoy’s; Jacqueline’s body was never found.

In September of that same year, Paco would be arrested along with six other men, Josman Aznar, Rowen Adlawan, Ariel Balansag, Alberto Cano, James Anthony Uy and James Andrew Uy for the heinous crime.

That could have sealed the case against Paco, but 35 witnesses and photographic evidence would place then 19-year-old Paco more than 350 miles away from the crime scene. Witnesses were teachers and classmates in a culinary school Pacowas attending. They said they were not called in to provide testimony.

It’s not too often the Philippine media is painted grimly as purveyors of sensationalism, but Collins is not one to spare anybody or any institution; in essence, he knows the guardians of truth need a watchdog, too.

The media circus that ensues plays up the drama of Paco’s privileged background against the working-class roots of the Chiongs, even if the Filipino-Chinese family is perhaps just as affluent albeit conservative in their ways.

It is in the depiction of the Chiong family that the movie clearly takes a sharp turn, suggesting motives and cover-ups that may seem incomprehensible or unfair if you’re from the Chiong side.

Dionisio, the father of the victims, is linked to a certain Peter Lim, a suspected drug lord that the filmmakers try to tie in with the story. Thelma, the mother, is shown using her connection to then-President Joseph Estrada whose long-time secretary was Thelma’s sister. Thelma becomes a government crusader against violence, which would probably make people ready to see her in a different light until one telling scene later—one brief unguarded moment that proves to be her undoing. It’s the one scene you will not want to miss.

The movie’s quiet, touching moments comes when Paco faces the camera to tell his story and when his parents Manuel and Margot visit their son inside his prison cell. Paco tries his best to make his life appear normal by dancing with his mother, while his father prepares his son’s special sandwich.

From that scene alone, you know Paco’s family is not going to give up on their son, even if it takes another country, Spain, to help him. Paco’s father, Manuel, is a Spanish national from the Basque region who has lived in Cebu in southern Philippines for many decades now with Margot, a granddaughter of former Philippine president Sergio Osmeña.

The Larrañaga family is frustrated over the Philippine judicial system and for his protection, has moved Paco to a Spanish jail cell through a prisoner-exchange treaty ratified by Spain and the Philippines. Paco is a dual citizen of both countries. Meanwhile, Paco’s case has gained support from Amnesty International, the Spanish government, the Fair Trials International and even the United Nations.

As the credits roll, you start to think about the other side, the Chiong family and what they have to say about the movie. Unfortunately, this writer was told that they wished to remain anonymous. A distant relative said they are not ready and open to discussing, let alone reliving this tragic story.

A related story also appeared in Asian Journal