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The refusal to give up today

July 27, 2012 10:42am

On the evening of July 16 1997, Paco Larrañaga was having drinks with his classmates from culinary school after a full day of exams. He went home at 2AM and was back in school at 8AM on July 17, for more exams. The teacher who proctors the tests swears that Paco was present in that classroom, his classmates are witness to his attendance – in school and for drinks the night before, official school records prove his presence, too. Paco was in Manila, and nowhere else, on July 16 and July 17, 1997.
 
I insist on beginning this story this way, not because “Give Up Tomorrow” has successfully swayed me into believing that Paco’s innocent. This documentary’s power in fact is that it wasn’t out to sway anyone into believing anything, as it could and will only bring you to the point of disbelief, that slowly moves towards the territory of dismay, and then into that space that you know to be anger. Interwoven with a whole lot of shame, and plenty of sadness, here is a documentary that can only be heart-wrenching not because it might bring you to tears, but because it will tug at both emotion and rationality, heart and common sense.
 
This is also the story of Marijoy and Jackie Chiong, sisters who disappeared on July 16 1997, in Cebu, and who are still only represented by one body found murdered and raped and left in a ditch, which wasn’t identified beyond reasonable doubt to be either of the two girls. In 1997, it was enough that their mother believed this body to be one of her daughters. Since 1997, we’ve believed Mrs. Chiong.
 
And I say we, in as much as it is us, collectively, who are conditioned by media to be the most agreeable of publics. As with Hubert Webb, much of what I remember about Paco is his stereotype: the rich kid, mestizo to put it kindly, conyo to speak derogatorily, with a reputation for fist fights, ultimately the bad boy your parents warned you about. There was no reason to think otherwise of Paco in 1997, and media certainly didn’t push us to ask questions, nor to demand better answers.
 
You remember this as you sit through the first half of “Give Up Tomorrow” and its thoroughly researched, succinctly written narration of events, that intersperses the side of Paco and his family with what exactly was coming out in the newspapers and on TV. The latter as counterpoint is of course a stand in itself, where the media as the “other side” of this narrative can only be a statement on how and why things turned out the way it has: that is, with Paco convicted with six others, first with two life sentences, and then with death.
 
That is because the media saw the bad boy stereotype and sold it to us as the truth behind, if not the premise of, this story of crime. Certainly this was the state of media in 1997, in a grand display of gross sensationalism and absolutely biased reportage that I’m sure any media personality would want to deny. And yet, any of them would be hard put to explain it away in the face of this documentary.
 
You watch this docu’s re-narration of the perspectives and opinions in news articles and talks shows of the Chiong case, and you cannot but cringe: at the high-waist jeans of Teddy Boy Locsin, and the fact that he and every other media personality on television would introduce Paco as the rich bad boy finally caught. And let us not forget the words “scion” and “delinquent” in the papers; let us not forget painting him as the conyo with a Spanish father.
 
“Give Up Tomorrow” reminds us not just that we watched the media take a stereotype and run with it, we also believed it so much, we failed to listen to anyone or see anything else. Not the witnesses who were allowed to speak in court, not those who couldn’t because the judge decided there were just too many of them. We didn’t care that there were photos that proved – that proved – that Paco was in Manila, drinking with friends on those days that the prosecution was saying he must have been in Cebu. We didn’t think anything was wrong with having a reenactment of the Chiong sisters’ disappearance, as narrated by the star witness who came out of nowhere, and having this air as if fact on TV while the case was on trial. We didn’t care to wonder whether that star witness was tortured to say what he did, or why he disappeared soon enough.
 
We couldn’t see the wrong in that photograph of Paco that they kept using in the papers, a head shot that had him in an almost scowl, a choice that couldn’t have been innocent at all. We didn’t hear, we weren’t listening, when Paco himself admitted – he admitted – that he is a bad boy, but that doesn’t change the fact that he was in Manila on the night the Chiong sisters disappeared in Cebu.
 
You realize that even as this story was carried to sensationalist lengths then and until Paco and six others were found guilty, we didn’t hear, media didn’t give us the chance to hear, those witnesses, all of Paco’s classmates and teachers, those who saw him at the bar in Manila, on the night the girls disappeared in Cebu. More recently, we barely heard about the United Nations Human Rights Council or the Fair Trials International petitions to the Philippines to declare a mistrial in Paco’s case.
 
I guess it’s no surprise: when you’re responsible for having painted this one boy the criminal, how do you respond without backtracking on your own culpability? How do you report on the hundreds of thousands of signatures that have been gathered in Spain, to save Paco from lethal injection? How do you even begin to tell this story in the present, without having to admit your own mistakes, your own irresponsibility, in talking about and reporting on what happened in 1997?
 
The sad and shameful answer is that you don’t. And as such “Give Up Tomorrow” reminds us how this form of the documentary still might be the most powerful film genre for impoverished and unjust Philippines, with the corruption and violence and fear we live with everyday. Research is what a documentary has going for it, and in this case, it is information we have long forgotten, if not consciously silenced, that is its weapon.
 
It’s a weapon it wields because it is all it has, but it is also a much stronger weapon because this documentary uses it like a blunt knife, one that cuts coldly through the skin, slowly but with certainty, until it hits bone and stops: there is not much more to say. It’s easy to think that this narrative need not be seen, or heard, because we know that the accused in any case, will say they are not guilty – or not as guilty as they are being painted. But this documentary precisely needs to be seen and heard, because what you realize is not so much that it will insist on innocence, it is that you will be carried by this narrative, from one end of the story to another, and you will find it difficult to think this boy guilty.
 
Because it is difficult to ignore the rationality in this documentary, at the same time that only the heartless will not feel for Paco and his family and friends, all frustrated and hopeful in equal turns, because that is all they can be. There is no insistence on compassion here, no grand set-up that will have you crying for Paco in the end. But you will find tears for his parents, his sister, his brother-in-law. And you cannot but cry for the rest of those accused, who do not speak much in this documentary, but who you can imagine have suffered as much as Paco has, if not more.
 
You will cry for the kind of injustice that we can watch happen before our eyes, that media can (still) sell as truth, that we can only become part of. You cannot but cry for the countless others who you know are like Paco too, but will not have the capacity to explain their innocence, or the words to think: I will give up tomorrow, so I might survive today.
 
And then, if you were there at the gala screening, you will cry in the open forum, that ended with a man standing up from the audience, congratulating the filmmakers, saying he knows exactly what Paco and his family continue to go through, because he has gone through it himself. You, meanwhile, cannot believe that he had sat through “Give Up Tomorrow.” You know that the dull cold knife must have been more real for him than for anyone else, because he has suffered media’s irresponsibility and sensational journalism, the Bilibid Prison, and every violence in between. 
 
It was Hubert Webb.
 
“Give Up Tomorrow” is screening at the Cinemalaya 2012 at the CCP, including the last show on July 29 at 3:30 p.m.. It is directed by Michael Collins and produced by Marty Syjuco.

 

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