Documenting Duterte’s brutal drug war

Community News & Features Apr 26, 2019 at 3:34 pm

5 Photos courtesy of Alpha PR

At Toronto’s Hot Docs Film Festival: On The President’s Orders

By Althea Manasan

On a street in the city of Caloocan, a driver sits atop his tricycle, waiting for customers. It’s a busy day, as people go about their daily business, doing their shopping, pushing their children in strollers. The driver’s young son fidgets in the cab beside him.

OTPO-posterFrom behind, a motorbike carrying two men riding-in-tandem pulls up beside the tricycle. Their faces are covered. One of the men pulls out a gun and shoots the tricycle driver twice — once in the jaw and then again in the chest — before speeding away. The driver, now gushing blood, stumbles off his tricycle in shock, reaching for something or someone to grab onto. He eventually collapses to the ground while stunned onlookers watch.

This graphic footage, captured by a CCTV camera, is one of the opening scenes of a new film documenting the drug war in the Philippines. On the President’s Orders, which will have its North American premiere this weekend at the Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto, offers a deeper and more intimate look at what’s happening on the ground as police crack down on suspected drug users.

Directed by James Jones and Olivier Sarbil, the investigative documentary focuses on the city of Caloocan, which made headlines in 2017 after a number of teenagers were killed in anti-drug operations. The film follows Police Chief Jemar Modequillo, who was hired in an attempt to overhaul the force after public outrage over the killings reached a boiling point.

Directors Olivier Sarbil and James Jones

Directors Olivier Sarbil and James Jones

Jones and Sarbil, who were working together on another documentary about the Iraqi Special Forces, decided to make a film about the drug war after following the story closely through news media and through their local contacts in the country. (Philippine officials say more than 5,000 people have been killed so far in Duterte’s anti-drug campaign, although international human rights organizations have estimated numbers closer to 20,000.)

“We thought our kind of combined approach to filmmaking could tell the story in a different way,” Jones said. He and Sarbil spoke to The Philippine Reporter by phone from London, England.

“I think we were conscious that people were kind of aware of the deaths in Britain, but people after a while just switched off, so we thought we could hopefully change the formula and get access to the police to kind of understand a bit more about how the killings were happening, how they could justify killing basically the urban poor.”

OTPO-doc1After getting advice from a local journalist, they decided to focus their cameras on Caloocan, in Metro Manila. Their first stop upon arriving was Police Chief Modequillo’s office to request permission to film him and his police force.

“To be honest, we kind of thought that they’d laugh at us … because it was such a hotspot, it was such a controversial moment, that we thought the idea of two European guys flying halfway across the world and showing up in their office, they’d be like, ‘Well, we know what you’re up to,’” said Jones. “But this journalist was like, ‘No, he’s like a real attention seeker, he’s got a big ego, he loves being the center of attention. So there’s a chance that he might say yeah.’”

The journalist was right. Jones said the chief loved the idea of a film about him. Over the course of six months, they embedded themselves for a total of 12 weeks with Modequillo and the police force, gaining unprecedented access.

OTPO-doc3“We had to win the trust of the chief of police and obviously everyone at the station. So really, we had to spend weeks, months, going in and out of the police station,” said Sarbil. Eventually, people at the station as well as the jail stopped asking them for identification.
“No one would ask us anything, we could stay there as long as we wanted,” Sarbil said, “to a point where we started to become invisible.”

Officers, officials and even Modequillo himself spoke candidly on camera about their roles in the drug war (sometimes offering unconvincing denials). Jones and Sarbil also filmed patrols and drug raids, capturing both the intensity of police operations and the banal attitudes that those involved have developed towards them.

KIAN DELOS  SANTOS, 17, whose killing by police triggered mass protests, led to police revamp in Caloocan City.

KIAN DELOS SANTOS, 17, whose killing by police triggered mass protests, led to police revamp in Caloocan City.

The filmmakers also interviewed the families of victims, including one of the teenaged sons of the tricycle driver whose killing was captured in CCTV footage. Arnold Martinez was one of 12 people killed by masked gunmen in Caloocan in the month of March 2018. His son Axel ran to his father’s side minutes after the shooting and watched him die.

Although Axel was nervous to be filmed at first, Jones said that he was keen to be involved. “I think it comes from when people are grieving. It’s something to focus on, like taking some kind of action,” Jones said about the family. “They knew they weren’t ever going to get justice for their father’s killing, so talking to us was I think a bit empowering for them.”

He said that speaking with victim’s families was a “delicate process” and described them as “just really sweet people who were caught in a horrible situation.”

While the film calls the drug war into question, Jones and Sarbil acknowledge that President Duterte and his methods have their share of supporters. The filmmakers said they hope people on both sides give the documentary a chance.

“We want it to be seen as widely as possible,” Jones said, adding that they’re looking forward to screening the film in Toronto, a city with a large Filipino population. He and Sarbil will be attending the premiere at Hot Docs.

“We’d be thrilled if Filipinos came, and people from all political persuasions. I think there’s an interesting debate to be had,” Jones said. “I know Duterte is very popular among expat Filipinos and so we’d love to answer questions about it.”

They’re working with human rights organizations to host other screenings around the world, and the documentary is expected to air on PBS, ARTE France and the BBC Storyville later this year.

The North American premiere of On the President’s Orders will be held on Saturday, April 27, at 8:30 p.m. at the Scotiabank Theatre in Toronto. There will be two more screenings on Monday, April 29, and Sunday, May 5, as part of the Hot Docs Film Festival.