How did the filmmakers for "Give Up Tomorrow" leverage the film for political action and justice for the film's subjects? Filmmaker Gemma Cubero's research shows how a film's engagement strategies are just as important as the film itself.
In July 1997, two girls went missing from the Cebu island of the Philippines. When one body was later found, Paco Larrañaga, age 19 at the time, was one of seven men accused of rape and murder, even though dozens of credible witnesses placed Paco hundreds of miles away on a different island, in Manila, on the night of the crime.
"Give Up Tomorrow" tells a story of injustice and calls its viewers to action. It tells Paco's story. Filmmakers Michael Collins and Marty Syjuco call the tale a "Kafkaesque extravaganza," balancing corrupt public officials, a "trial of the century" mentality and a media frenzie.
Juxtaposed with two women who have struggled for more than a decade for Paco's freedom, the film reflects "schisms of race, class, and political power at the core of the Philippines’ tumultuous democracy," according to the film's website. The country later abolished the death penalty in part because of the filmmakers' efforts.
"I feel like without the film, Paco would have been dead by now," Cubero says, speaking of the film that has significantly influenced not just the protagonist's life, but her life.
Cubero has developed an expertise in producing, fundraising, networking and creating resources for filmmaking. Her directorial debut film with Celeste Carrasco, Ella Es El Matador, is the first film through the independent production company that Cubero also founded in 2006, Talcual Films. Ella Es El Matador debuted in the U.S. in Silverdocs Documentary Film Festival in 2009.
Trained as an investigative journalist and with a passion for teaching, Cubero received her M.A. from the University of Southern California in 2012. As a part of a requirement for that degree, she researched documentary film and its use as a tool for social change—she studied "Give Up Tomorrow."
Cubero found tremendous inspiration in the film, and learned enough lessons from it to make it the focus of her master's thesis.
"Their story's incredible; their drive's incredible and their focus on changing the death penalty..." she says of the film's creators. "It was just a perfect story."
Cubero first met with Collins and Syjuco in 2008 as part of Tribeca All Access. In planning her thesis research, she met with them again throughout 2011 and 2012 because she wanted to talk to filmmakers about the permutations new technologies were birthing in filmmaking.
"I felt in my body how things were changing," she says. "'Give Up Tomorrow' really stuck with me because...it was already a very alive project."
She says the film's global influence along with the urgency to make it to potentially save one life or more and its example as a film that could make a difference made it "very close to my heart." From that point forward, she knew her thesis would be about the "life-changing" and necessary work, and the way the film took a different approach than most.
Cubero wrote in her thesis about the variation in focus for filmmakers. Nowadays, advertising and campaigning for a film starts months and years in advance of publishing it, whereas before, a filmmaker may have waited until the film were finished or close to finished before beginning its campaign. The core of Cubero's thesis discusses how, presently, a film's social media campaign is just as important as the film itself.
"Now you're reaching an audience way before the film is finished," Cubero says.
In her thesis, she discusses how ahead of the game filmmakers Collins and Syjuco were, creating social media accounts for "Give Up Tomorrow," such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, WordPress, and using even less-conventional multimedia tools like Google analytics and signature petitions, "before the terms came out or were defined," she adds.
"'Give Up Tomorrow' was a good example of a work that was doing all of these things before they became mainstream," Cubero says.
In her thesis, Cubero also explores the present-day challenges of having more and many tools at one's disposal. For one, a film doesn't end when it goes to film festivals, she says.
"Your job really never ends; it just keeps being transformed," Cubero says. "It gives us so many more opportunities to keep our stories alive, but it's added a lot of work."
To be successful, filmmakers fundraise constantly and are adroit in the various aspects of production. A filmmaker or any media maker should have skills on multiple platforms that are sometimes unpredictable and acquired on-the-spot, she says.
"It just exploded," Cubero says.
Cubero says that is yet another reason why "Give Up Tomorrow" peaked her interest for her thesis. For her, the film did what none other has done. To her, there is no known relatable impact in documentary film.
"What I mean by never dying—it's accessible from everywhere in the world; you have to keep watching it and feeding it and taking care of it and still keep it alive," Cubero says. "You have to keep updating your content online and cultivating your relationship with your audience."
But like any good book, films, too, have faddish days. Eventually, a filmmaker must not so much let his or her film die as they should let it be. The time to move from concentrating on promoting one film to creating and promoting another is when a filmmaker finds another story and moves on, she says.
"Even if you do amazing work and your film contributes to stopping the death penalty and builds and international movement to free a man, some things are hard to change," Cubero says. "But if Paco is freed from prison one day, that would be a direct signal of the impact of 'Give Up Tomorrow.'"
This thesis examines how the making and distribution of documentary films has been impacted by the use of new digital technology, and how these digital tools have changed the relationship that the filmmakers have to their audience. By focusing on the making of the documentary film "Give Up Tomorrow," directed and produced by Marty Syjuco and Michael Collins, this thesis shows how documentaries are evolving in our constantly changing digital landscape, and how we can maximize these changes to bring about justice and create more effective social change.
To access Gemma Cubero's thesis in full, contact her at email@example.com with "Give Up Tomorrow: documentary for social change" in the subject line.