As the open forum following the Philippine premiere of “Give Up Tomorrow” was winding down, a young man stood from his seat and made his way toward a microphone. Audience members taking a look at him gasped in recognition. “It’s Hubert Webb!” my seatmate whispered, and indeed it was one of the more famous ex-prisoners of recent times.
Webb, for those who’ve forgotten, was imprisoned for 15 years at the New Bilibid Prison, convicted along with five coaccused for the 1995 “Vizconde massacre,” where a mother and her two daughters were killed in their Parañaque home. In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled with finality on the case, acquitting Webb and his coaccused. And so, perhaps more than anyone else at the audience that Sunday evening, Webb knew whereof he was speaking, having 15 years’ experience with the state of the Philippine justice system, including the role of media and politics. But he kept his opinions to himself.
“I met Paco in Muntinlupa,” Webb began, referring to Paco Larrañaga whose struggle for justice and vindication was the subject of the compelling documentary. Expressing appreciation for what the documentary makers were trying to do, he concluded: “The best defense is letting the world know what really happened.”
It seemed a rather lame conclusion, especially after the rather subtly powerful exposition of “Give Up Tomorrow.” But the rousing applause that accompanied Webb as he made his way back to his seat seemed to express the audience’s sympathy not just for Webb but also for Larrañaga; for anyone, for that matter, who ends up paying the price for a miscarriage of justice which takes place astonishingly frequently in this country.
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Friends from Cebu, even while the trial of Larrañaga and his coaccused was going on, confessed to being “torn” by the case. Of course, they felt sympathy for Thelma and Dionisio Chiong, who lost their daughters Joy and Jackie when they disappeared one rainy night in 1997.
But they also knew Margot Larrañaga, mother of Paco, one of the more prominent suspects arrested for the kidnap-murder of the Chiong sisters. “She has always been low-key and supportive of civil society causes,” recalled one of my friends of Margot, who belongs to the politically influential Osmeña clan of Cebu and is married to a former pelotari, Chuchu Larrañaga, a Spanish citizen.
Indeed, one of the more enduring themes of the coverage of crime in the Philippines is that of a rich, influential man (or group of men) who takes advantage of his social cachet and political influence to commit a crime or crimes, confident of getting away scot-free with the help of heavyweight relatives and friends of the family.
From the Maggie dela Riva rape case to the Vizconde, Hultman and Chiong killings, focus has invariably been thrown on the personalities of the accused, and the interlocking ties of wealth, politics and connections that serve as protective nets. Which may explain why, in any case where scions of prominent families are involved, public sympathy and media coverage invariably fall on the victims, who are presumed to be embroiled in a “David and Goliath” battle.
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But as “Give Up Tomorrow” shows, sometimes, we may need to question, if not abandon this knee-jerk analysis, even if our natural sympathies are for the underdog, and our sense of justice is aroused by what appears to be a railroading of injustice.
Director Michael Collins and producer Marty Syjuco (who is a distant relative by marriage to the Larrañagas) spent more than seven years working on the film, their first. “We were approached by the witnesses,” Collins recalls of the time they decided to take on the project, referring to classmates of Larrañaga at the Center for Culinary Arts (CCA) in Quezon City. Some of these classmates were able to testify that Paco was with them in class on the day of the crime, and even had photos to show that he was with them in a bar on the night the Chiong sisters disappeared. Ultimately, however, their testimony was disregarded.
“We were reading the operating handbook of the camera on the flight to Manila,” the pair also confessed, adding that they had no idea of the extent of commitment their project demanded. They would visit Manila five times in all, they recalled, conducting more than 100 interviews. They included Thelma Chiong, “who wanted to air her side,” but not David Rusia, the “star witness” who claimed to have been part of the group of accused and turned state witness, although fellow detainees testify that he was tortured into confessing. “We searched for him everywhere and even went to his home in Bohol, but he seems to have disappeared,” Syjuco said.
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“Give Up Tomorrow” is taken from an interview with Paco who said that his main tactic of survival while in prison was living day to day, “worrying only about how I was going to survive that day.” He told his companions, he said, to “give up tomorrow,” and concentrate on living only for the moment.
It seems a most cruel existence, but I suppose it works for Paco, who to this day spends his days in a Spanish jail after winning extradition, though he cannot yet win parole until he admits his guilt. (Syjuco said they recently received word that the Spanish courts were ready to waive this requirement.)
But ordinary Filipinos, who have set their roots in this country, cannot but send out tendrils of hope and optimism, if only to survive the daily tribulations we are subject to. This is why “Give Up Tomorrow” left me weary and strangely depleted. The movie’s themes may have been “plucked from the headlines,” but they are themes we choose to push to the back of our minds, if only to enable us to move on and function in this our country.