Truth and the gazeBy Radel Paredes
Cebu Daily News
Truth is always difficulty to know and what the law requires of it makes it even more elusive. The criterion of proof beyond reasonable doubt often reduces truth to a matter of material evidence and a set of syllogisms. The goal of total impartiality requires that we abstain from all kinds of “interest” and emotion and let reason alone rule. In other words, it turns the legal process or justice into a kind of science.
Yet there is no guarantee for it not to be untainted by human frailty. Every judge knows that he or she can only make conclusions from what little evidence is presented. Despite such inadequacy, however, what comes out as the verdict is equated to justice, taken as self-evident truth.
Thus often the judge suffers the agony of knowing that simply out of some lapses in the legal proceedings, he may have sent to the dungeons someone who is actually innocent or he may have released a criminal.
Then there are those of us in the media who, despite our lack of proper training in the legal process, attempt to analyze the case and aim to sway public opinion. So the whole thing amounts to layer upon layer of interpretations added to the narrative unfolding in the courtroom.
What actually transpired is left for anyone to surmise. And in a democracy, everyone is free to give his two cents worth. Popular opinion, that proverbial “Vox Dei” which is the cumulative effect of this, could be strong enough to challenge the legal Magisterium that is the judiciary.
It would thus seem presumptuous for me to make my own conjectures on legal matters, which is why I prefer to abstain from writing about them in my column. Not that I am not interested; in fact, I want to be “disinterested” about it, which in the philosophical sense of the word, means that I try to detach myself from my own personal interests in the case or whatever that may actually have nothing to do with what the law itself requires.
Would you be so willing to allow yourself to give up even your own self-interest in the greater interest of justice? But can we always trust the judges to do the same? These are the ultimate questions.
So with so much effort to suspend judgment, I watched Wednesday’s special screening of “Give Up Tomorrow”, a documentary produced by Marty Syjuco and directed by his friend, New York-based Michael Collins, which revisits the controversial 1997 rape-murder case of Marijoy and Jacqueline Chiong.
The film focuses on Francisco “Paco” Larrañaga, one of seven people convicted and sentenced to death, a penalty later commuted to life imprisonment when President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo abolished capital punishment in the Philippines. Using the conventional style of investigative journalism, the film uses interviews of people involved in the case, including police investigators assigned to the case, journalists who covered it, and even Mrs. Thelma Chong, the outspoken mother of the murdered sisters.
But most of the story comes from the side of the Larrañaga family, who the filmmakers—one of whom is a distant relative (Syjuco)—were able to follow and film intimately. While it presents arguments from both sides, the film delves more on the defense’s theory of Paco’s innocence. This includes the view that 35 witnesses, who say that they were with Paco in Manila when the murder happened in Cebu, could not be wrong. It also questions the identity of the corpse, which even the judge himself admitted was something not entirely proven.
Part of the film was shot in Spain, showing how the family tried to get the Spanish government and media to intervene for Paco, who is a Spanish citizen. The international lobbying worked and Paco was repatriated to Spain to serve the rest of his sentence there.
Even if Syjuco has no relation with the Larrañagas, it is obvious that the film takes their perspective of the case. And they deserve to be heard, considering that the public has, as they say, already prejudged them. Watching Pacos parents pray, share a meal, or even dance during a visit in jail, we encounter another side of the family, far from how the public perceives them.
Still, one cannot easily change his or her mind over a film. It takes at least a rebuttal from the other side, a counter-film.
But such is the power of cinema, a medium that only mechanically records what the camera “sees”. Of course, there remains a controlling gaze behind the viewfinder, selecting from the flux of reality what it only wants to see and what it wants us to see.