Silverdocs 2011: ‘Give Up Tomorrow’ and ‘Where Soldiers Come From’

Editor’s note: ‘Give Up Tomorrow’ screens at Silverdocs on 23 June. ‘Where Soldiers Come From’ screens 23 and 25 June.

“I’m not scared to face my creator,” says Paco Larrañaga. “I have a big space there, I’m sure.” Here on earth, though, he’s less certain. Interviewed in the New Bilibid Prison in the Philippines, Larrañaga wears an orange jumpsuit and peers awkwardly into the video camera’s wide lens. “It’s just so unfair, getting that lethal injection without me giving a fight,” he says. “I was not given a fair fight. I was not given a chance to defend myself.”

Larrañaga isn’t the only one who believes this. Following his arrest in 1997 for the gang-rapes and murders of two sisters who went missing, his case became the focus of international media and political attention, with investigations by Amnesty International, Fair Trials International, and the United Nations Human Rights Commission all concluding that he was denied his constitutional rights. The film makes the argument that his treatment is unfair. And it’s ongoing.

As presented in Michael Collins’ documentary Give Up Tomorrow, Larrañaga’s story is also horrifying. The film shows the effects of this trauma on him and his family members. A different sort of trauma appears in another film also screening at Silverdocs on 23 June, Where Soldiers Come From. Heather Courtney’s film follows three childhood friends from Northern Michigan, members of the National Guard who are deployed to Eastern Afghanistan for nine months in 2008. Their work on a “road clearance” team means that they ride in armored vehicles ahead of supply convoys: “We go out there and find the explosives, so people in less armored vehicles don’t get blown up,” explains Cole Smith, “It’s important.” And, as revealed in Courtney’s film, this work has effects on the men that are also ongoing.

Give Up Tomorrow begins partway through Larrañaga’s ordeal, then cuts back in time, as the filmmakers interview not only him and his family members, but also police officers and other officials who brought the case. When plainclothes policemen came to his door at school, he was afraid they were criminals come to kidnap him, his sister Mimi remembers: the scene is illustrated by a set of ominous animated silhouettes, setting up the surreal events to follow. Recalling this moment, when her brother called her and they told each other the mix-ups would be sorted out, Mimi blanches: “That is how clueless we were about what was going on.”

She and her family were clueless, it turns out, because they believed that if they had proof — photos, testimonies from 42 witnesses, and school records — that Paco was away at school at the time of the murders, that the police would realize their error and release him, soon. This never happened.

Instead, Give Up Tomorrow shows, the police investigation and the trial that followed were premised on faulty or nonexistent evidence: aside from the fact that nothing connected Paco or his six codefendants to the crime scene, one body, Jackie Chiong’s, was never found, and the one that was identified as Marijoy Chiong’s was later determined not to be. These mistakes were compounded but also obscured by the media melee that developed around the case, depicting the suspects as thugs and monsters (one TV reporter appears inside Bilibad as he pronounces, “These young boys in prison will have to watch their asses when they bend for the soap in the shower, another kind of lethal injection”), and the missing girls’ parents, Dionisio and especially Thelma Chiong, as bereft and abject. She appears in several TV interviews, claiming that Paco and another boy were onetime “suitors” of the sisters, and now, “They ruined my child’s future, I think that I deserve justice.”

Here the scene cuts to Mimi. “At first, Mrs. Chiong had my sympathies. I’m a mother too, I have a daughter too,” she says, her face taut, “I felt her pain.” But Paco didn’t know the Chiongs, so when Mrs. Chiong began to insist that he did, Mimi saw her differently. “This is not someone who [is saying], ‘I want justice for my daughter.’ This is somebody who is actively working toward the conviction of an innocent boy.”

Indeed, as the film’s own investigation reveals, the first missteps were only that: first missteps. When an offscreen interviewer asks, “How can you start arresting people if no one has identified any of them?” Florencio Villarin, former head of the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), has no answer, but sends the film crew on to speak with a police inspector, who in turn has no recollection of the “evidence” he initially cites. So, the interviewers says, “This is not a possible interview, you cannot remember?” The inspector nods. The scene ends.

As fragmented and frustrating as the story turns over the six years the filmmakers followed it, Give Up Tomorrow provides a through-line, in Mimi’s outrage and determination. The various stages of her brother’s misfortune are titled by the number of months after the arrest, and then years; in between interviews, the film offers provocative images, ranging from mobs of reporters to cops digging at the Larrañagas’ farm (where they find nothing, only Mimi, furiously demanding that their every move be videotaped), from footage of the judge falling asleep in court to a lurid reenactment of the crime that aired on television, based on the account of a witness who comes forward late (after being tortured by police). Occasionally, the film also takes a breath and looks outward, as when a section is introduced with a beautiful shot, a woman with an umbrella walking away from the camera as kids go sliding on their bellies over a rain-slicked plaza all around her.

But such interludes only underscore the idea that for the Larrañagas, and for Paco absolutely, life does not go on. For them, time is stopped and endless at once, their trauma encountered and remembered daily.

The same might be said for Cole Smith and his friends, Dom Fredianelli and Bodi Beaudoin, in Where Soldiers Come From. They join the National Guard, they say more than once, for the money. “I said, ‘Fuck it,’ it pays for my schooling,” says Bodi, who also has a father and other relatives in the military. When he’s done with it, he goes on, “I want to be a cop like my old man. That’s all you hear from small towns, ‘Oh, I can’t wait to get out.'” But he’s liked it in the Upper Peninsula just fine, and would actually rather not have to leave it.

When the buddies do leave, their families send them off with some trepidation. “Ever see that movie, Deer Hunter,” asks Cole’s mother, Mary. “That reminds me so much of this group, maybe because they’re so close-knit. If something happens to one of them, it will be so devastating to the group, you know.” when he’s gone, she and her husband, along with Cole’s sister Lindsay, stay in touch with him as best they can, by email and video. In a structure that recalls that of Deborah Scranton’s The War Tapes, focused on the experiences of three National Guardsmen from New Hampshire, Where Soldiers Come From cuts between the guys in Afghanistan and the families back home, the desert and snow, the armored vehicles and a Zamboni at the local hockey rink.

Life goes on and it doesn’t. Dom’s girlfriend Ashley describes their adjustments, worries when they’re on a mission and she might not hear from him for a couple of days. At Salerno, Dom worries about what he’s doing: “What is the point of all this?” he asks, “Who am I fighting a war for? I can’t stop thinking about my friends, I can’t imagine what it would be like if one of them or me doesn’t come back. It’s putting a big burden on our shoulders if one of them doesn’t come home safe.” The burden is exacerbated, as explosions, injuries, and frustrations exact different tolls, erode confidence, raise questions. Cole can’t keep food down, Dom, an artist all his life, has trouble drawing, and Bodi declares he hates everyone in Afghanistan, thanking “the United States Army” for making him a racist.

The scenes in Afghanistan include diary-style self-reflections, shots of the men at work (helmeted and sunglassed, the camera tilted up at their grim jawlines as they drive), and discussions among the three. The job is hard. As Bodi says, looking for IEDs is “like anticipating getting punched in the face,” for hours at a time. By the time they return home, the dynamic has changed, among them, with their families, and with the filmmaking process. Dom is briefly impatient with “answering questions,” Cole has troubles having his tuition paid (the VA loses his paperwork), and Bodi learns he has TBI, that his brain looks like he’s “been playing professional football for 20 years.” The doctors can’t predict what will happen, whether he’ll be fine decades from now or he’ll “be drooling.”

All this disruption, and no clear end to it. Where Soldiers Come From is less interested in finding blame than in giving voice — and visuals — to effects. If the soldiers and their families can’t possibly be prepared for what happens, they survive. And if the systems in place — legal, administrative, and medical — haven’t caught up to the traumas inflicted on those who serve, they survive that too.