Inspiring People

Documentary Filmmaker, Marty Syjuco

Marty Syjuco

On a stormy night in July 1997, two young girls waiting for a ride at a shopping mall disappear without a trace... Simultaneously a murder-mystery and an exposé of endemic corruption in the post-Marcos Philippines, GIVE UP TOMORROW centers on the trial of Paco Larrañaga, a young Mestizo (of Spanish descent) accused of killing two Chinese-Filipino sisters on the island of Cebu. Capturing how a rapacious media circus stoked ethnic and class hatred to prejudice public perception, the film reveals the extraordinary judicial violations that resulted in Paco's death sentence. Secret filming from Paco's cell exposes the appalling conditions of Filipino prisons, where thousands like him languish without fair trial. This story is intensely personal with far-reaching global implications: Paco's case was eventually championed by international human rights groups, including the UN; their efforts eventually led to the abolishment of capital punishment in the Philippines, saving hundreds of inmates whose possible innocence may have been disregarded by flawed judicial and social systems. ~ Courtesy of Tribeca Film Institute

Marty Syjuco and his partner Michael Collins are powerful examples of what it means to to fight for something bigger than yourself. Their film Give Up Tomorrow, the story of one families fight for justice, is an inspiring work of art that reminds us all that we must take a stand for the principles that inform our humanity and that our struggles are indeed shared.

DR: So you were saying...

MS: I got goose bumps when you were telling me about your brother-in-law because Paco is also my brother-in-law.

DR: He is your actual brother-in-law?

MS: His sister is married to my brother...

DR: So that is how you got involved?

MS: Yes.

We know for a fact that Paco did not commit this crime because he was at my house in Manila when the crime was allegedly happening, on a different island in the Philippines about 350 miles away. There is no way he could have been in two places at one time. He would have had to take a plane...

He was at my house with my mom. He had over 35 witnesses that were with him that have photographs. He was in cooking school. He was taking exams. His exam papers, his professors – all of these are his witnesses.

DR: Why didn't any of that matter?

MS: Exactly. That is the question. Why didn't that matter? The judge refused to listen to them. My own mother was one of the witnesses and she went to court hoping to testify and she was not allowed. It's a kangaroo court in The Philippines even though it is patterned after the justice system of The United States because we are a former colony of The United States. The one main difference with our courts is that we don't have a jury system. There is just one judge who reigns, who rules...

DR: Who sleeps...

MS: Who sleeps. Yes. Who sleeps during testimony. His behavior was ridiculous. He didn't even allow the defense to take the stand. That is a basic constitutional right.

DR: Is that a constitutional right in The Philippines?

MS: Yes!

DR: And he denied someone that right without consequence?

MS: Yes. You have the right to take the stand and defend yourself. He refused to allow Paco to take the stand in his own trial...

DR: How is it that there were no consequences for that?

MS: That is the big question. After the judge convicted Paco the family appealed to The Supreme Court and we waited for four years. At the time we really thought that once the court reviewed the case they would take these violations into consideration. They will see. The judge ended up committing suicide shortly after the trial. He killed himself. That in itself...

DR: Was there a connection?

MS: That is what we were wondering at the time. There was an investigation and we interviewed the forensic pathologist and she said it was suicide.

That should show the state of mind of the judge. He was very imbalanced. That should have been grounds for the case to be reopened.

Four years later, The Supreme Court decision came about. Where Paco was originally sentenced to life in prison, The Supreme Court elevated his sentence to a death. So, not only did they say that the judge's decision and his conduct was valid but they added a death sentence. We were shocked. That is when I got involved...

DR: What happened?

Mary Syjuco and Michael Collins share their thoughts about their groundbreaking documentary

MS: We decided to fly to the Philippines with a camera and start documenting all of this so that we could make a film. That was six years ago.

To date there has been a lot of movement. We reached out to Amnesty International...

DR: And did they respond?

MS: Very much so. A lot of the human rights groups came together and championed Paco. Amnesty International made Paco the poster boy in their campaign against the death penalty.

DR: And now there is no death penalty in the Philippines as a result? That wouldn't have happened if you guys hadn't gotten involved? Is that right?

MS: Right.

Paco is half Spanish. His father is Spanish and so Paco has dual citizenship. When this happened the family reached out to Spain. Spain started to get involved. We made a short film where Paco pleads:

"Please don't abandon me".

We took that to Spain. We had a press conference and gave the film to the media and it exploded! It went viral. Newspapers launched signature campaigns and really got the public involved. The public put a lot of pressure on the Spanish government to do something. So Spanish politicians went to the Philippines and met with Paco and knocked on doors, met with the President and did their whole diplomatic thing...At the same time the United Nations Human Rights Committee got involved and concluded that there were a lot of major violations in Paco's case and demanded that the Philippine government release Paco. The government ignored their demand.

Anyway, there was a snowball effect, kind of a tidal wave that started with very local grassroots campaigning and just kept getting bigger and bigger. All of that pressure was mounting on the Philippines and on the President of the Philippines directly to do something. At that time Spain was the biggest financial contributor to The Philippines. That year alone I think they donated something like 42 million Euros for aid for development and all they wanted in return was justice for Paco.

DR: So then why is he still sitting in prison?

MS: What happened was that on the day that the Philippine president was on an official State Visit to Spain, she signed the abolishment of the death penalty. She brought it to Spain and presented it to the King of Spain.

DR: And that was because of Paco?

MS: That was because of Paco. He was very instrumental.

She was applauded as a hero. She was celebrated and given an award but in reality she didn't abolish it because she thought it was the right thing to do. She abolished it because of the pressure she was under. But, as a result it saved Paco's life and the lives of thousands of others who had been on death row. Our film covers all of that...

At the end of the day however, the film is really about this family and about their tragedy and about how they are able to cope and keep going with everything falling apart around them. They still fight because Paco is still in prison. His sentence has been commuted to life in prison.

We continued to campaign and continued to apply pressure so much so that Spain and The Philippines created a prison exchange treaty, a landmark treaty that allowed for Paco to be transferred to Spain

DR: So where is Paco now?

MS: Last year he was transferred to Spain.

DR: Okay. And that is progress...

MS: That is progress. He was the first prisoner to ever be transferred out and it was a very controversial move. I don't know if you get the idea that Paco was considered guilty trying to prove his innocence...

DR: Yes. I do get it. There is a very vigilante feel to all of it...

MS: Very much. The media played a big role in Paco's persecution. There was this television show that reenacted the crime with a famous actor showing that Paco committed the crime while his trial was happening and before his defense team was able to present his defense. I mean even here in The United States that is not allowed to happen...

DR: At least not yet anyway which is one of the reasons that, for me, this film is so important. As one of the experts in the trailer for your documentary says:

"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere".

I know that as a citizen of the United States I am nervous about a lot of things that have been unfolding over the last few years that threaten the basic rights of citizens. There is this cultivation and tolerance of a vigilante mentality that seems to be ratcheting up lately. 9/11 was certainly a catalyst for this mentality but I think that 9/11 is being exploited to the degree that now people are unwilling to honor, above anything, our rights as citizens. That is a very dangerous, dangerous game to play because at any given moment, none of us knows if we might be the person who you inadvertently rolls through s stop sign because we are late for work and then seven years later we're still stuck in prison having been sentenced to twenty years for a rape that we did not commit...

MS: And you are not really fully aware of the consequences until it happens to you or someone you know.

DR: So, why was it so important for you to do the film?

MS: We were in disbelief. Is this really happening? This was my way of doing something. In telling Paco's story I am hoping to bring attention to the many, many stories out there.

In the Philippines, for instance, it is a common practice for the police to frame people. When a crime is committed there is a lot of pressure on the police, who have very limited resources and limited skills to conduct a proper investigation, to solve the crime. They just end up picking up poor people on the street who don't have the means to defend themselves. These people can't even hire a lawyer so they are assigned unqualified, unmotivated lawyers to handle the case...

DR: It becomes more theater than it is justice. It's like a farce...

MS: I have spent a lot of time in prison visiting Paco. We even smuggled a camera into the prison to interview him. Paco tells us that about 40% of the people in his maximum-security prison are innocent.

Our story is not about Paco. I mean we are using Paco's story because it is dramatic but what about the others? The system is flawed. I know that as a Pilipino if you are ever stopped by the police, you have two choices - you either pay if you can, or you flee.

DR: So where are you now in terms of getting the film out into the world?

MS: We are hoping that our film will be part of the campaign to help Paco and others. There is a definite call to action. We are anxious to release it as soon as possible. Paco does not deserve to be in prison. We are hoping to be accepted into The Sundance Film Festival because of the attention, the prestige and the publicity for the film and for Paco.

DR: When do you submit?

MS: We submitted a rough cut in September. Thousands of films are vying for 16 slots but if we are not lucky enough to get into Sundance there are other festivals. Human Rights Watch has already contacted us. Tribeca Film Festival is interested...

DR: I think the film is really well done but more importantly the message is a so relevant to everyone who is walking the earth and breathing inside of a structured community. Even if people do not realize how relevant and important an issue this is to them – it is. This film is about our freedom and about our rights as human beings. I hope that it gets the attention it deserves.

MS: Absolutely. Unfortunately this kind of injustice is too common and while our film is about a tragedy it is also hopeful because it shows how you can fight injustice. This family did not just sit around. They fought and in a sense they are beating injustice and hopefully Paco will eventually be released.

It is important that we know that we can make a difference. All of the thousands of signatures that were collected served a purpose. So often we think that as one person we can't make a big difference. We get lazy or scared...

DR: Yeah. I think that it was Martin Luther King, Jr. who said “To ignore evil is to become an accomplice to it”

This is a big deal what you are doing...

MS: We cannot live in a society where this is allowed.

DR: And it is happening...

A hundred years from now what do you want to be remembered for?

MS: I want to be remembered for making a difference with my films. I want to be able to effect change -maybe just a change in each individual viewer. I want to be able to provide viewers with the opportunity to enter into a dialogue and I want to inspire them to do something.

"Watch my film and go do something about it!"

Thanks Marty!

GIVE UP TOMORROW: a documentary feature film

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