Give Up Tomorrow begins with video footage of a beefy, baby-faced mestizo being questioned by an off-camera interviewer. The question that concludes this prelude is, “Who do you think framed you?” It goes unanswered, at least verbally, as the subject locks the camera with a fixed gaze before the screen cuts to black. It’s a loaded moment brimming with double entendre and engineered to establish the central themes of the entire film: This man is innocent, and consequently, He has been unjustly incarcerated. They are harrowing concepts with disturbing implications. Then again, this is one truly fucked-up story.
On the evening of July 16, 1997, two sisters of Filipino-Chinese ethnicity disappear outside a mall in Cebu, the Philippines’ second largest city. The worst is feared and partially confirmed when the body of a young woman is found at the bottom of ravine two days later, autopsy reports confirming that she had been brutally gang-raped before her murder. Within two months, 7 men are arrested, among them, one Paco Larranaga, a young mestizo who quickly becomes the face of the notorious incident. The subsequent media frenzy results in one of the most infamous cases in Philippine history, drawing from a cast of tragic characters, hinting at the involvement of influences from the highest echelons of politics to the underbelly of organized crime, and ultimately symbolizing the festering rot of corruption and class divide that lies beneath the surface of a seemingly civilized society. Give Up Tomorrow concerns itself with the assertion of Paco Larranaga’s innocence. It is NOT a film that attempts to solve a case (although it does contain several moments where it appears to hint at avenues of possible exploration). Rather, it is a film that exists as Larranaga’s defense in visual form – the reasoning being that his own legal team was denied proper due process during the trials. Conspiracy theories, political force majeure, and a particular set of interviews that were never legally considered by the presiding judge, all lie at the heart of Give Up Tomorrow.
There are two general variations of documentary projects – one that investigates to arrive at a point, and inversely, one that begins at a fixed point and investigates to corroborate or debunk it. It is significant to note at the onset that Give Up Tomorrow is of the latter strain, a newer and more aggressive breed of expose-style filmmaking, typical of ventures whose subject matters are of unusual urgency. Thankfully, it does not revert to the capricious antics of Morgan Spurlock’s caricatures of modern life, nor does it adopt the antagonistic belligerence of Michael Moore’s moral platitudes. Rather, Give Up Tomorrow attempts to address a very specific event as evenly as possible and in doing so, reveals several alarming realities.
Stylistically, it relies heavily on archival news, interviews and most dramatically, guerilla-style clandestine footage from within the prison walls. The film is able to generate a sense of bitter symmetry between the paradoxes manifest in Philippine life by combining various sources: the rugged natural beauty of Cebu shot in DV as compared to the brutal gulag of the local prison seen through the cold jade of night vision; the searing torment of the interviewed families involved in contrast to the farcical circus of the rabid media set. The editing is commendable given the amount of material that must have been accumulated after 6 years of research and compilation, and the direction of the film never waivers. I’m certain the possibility of the project evolving into an Oliver Stone production existed, but it does not bite off more than it can chew, and instead sticks defiantly to its singular point of a man’s innocence.
There are some heavy hitters involved behind the scenes of Give Up Tomorrow. Michael Collins (Director) is the founder of Thoughtful Robot, a production company committed to covering social justice stories. Marty Syjuco (Producer) is the direct link between the movie and its main protagonist, as his brother is married to Paco’s sister. Ramona Diaz (Executive Producer) is best known for her full-length documentary of the former first lady of the Philippines, Imelda. The objective nature of the project will rightfully come into question given two of those three names are well-known crusaders and the Producer is an in-law of the convicted man. It is testament to their professional demeanor, however, that they manage to craft a solid vehicle regardless of how many moving parts are involved. Yes, it is a stacked-deck, but it deals as fair a hand as it can, refusing to devolve into melodrama or parody.
Give Up Tomorrow is an important film. It concerns a specific tragedy and the on-going ramifications that have reverberated through the respective families involved. But more than that, it asks some fairly difficult questions of Philippine society, as well as the global community at large. It is a personal suspicion that Give Up Tomorrow may encounter several challenges finding screen time in the Philippines, mainly because it is a politically and socially embarrassing revelation. But it is oft the bitterest pill that is the most effective panacea.