Hot Docs 2019: ‘On the President’s Orders’ Documents the Philippine Drug War

On the President’s Orders, directed by James Jones and Olivier Sarbil, is a jarring and disturbing account of Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs. Waged in the slums of Manila, national and local law enforcement troops build a suffocating physical and psychological presence in the lives of many of the nation’s most marginalized individuals.

President Duterte, an unyielding and sinister strongman who has compared himself to Hitler, takes drug enforcement to the extreme. In the first year of Duterte’s presidency alone, 3,000 extra-judicial drug murders occurred. From what is apparent in the film, many of the drug dealers in question carry low quantities of methamphetamine that typically serve for personal use. Yet, roving police squadrons do not care to make this distinction and, in turn, kill at will. The conflict is most pronounced in the Caloocan district of Manila – a dense and impoverished neighbourhood that Jemar Modeqillo, the city’s police chief at the time of the film’s production, deemed “the home of the discipline.”

There is a shockingly violent opening sequence in the film that is extracted from security camera footage where two masked gunmen pull up beside Arnold Martinez, a motorcycle cab driver, and shoot him twice in his vehicle from an extremely close range. He stumbles around bleeding and collapses on the street in front of his young sons. The perpetrators were not wearing a police uniform, but many conversations uncovered throughout the film indicate that the police have enabled armed vigilantes to kill potential drug suspects without provocation. As a result, this murder has yet to be solved.

In the case of Martinez, though he was under police surveillance as a drug user, he had been living clean for the two years leading up to his murder. Police keep an active tally on all drug-related suspects and, without a warrant, will storm into their homes at any time of day or night. Families are destroyed as parents, spouses, and children scream in horror. The suspects that are not murdered spend undefined amounts of time on the floors of over-crowded jails where guards routinely beat and humiliate them.

Jones and Sarbil provide little political, economic, social, or historical context on what created the contemporary circumstances of Duterte’s rule in the Philippines. Instead, they opt for an observational documentary that follows the lives of several police officers, a funeral home director, and the numerous citizens affected by Duterte’s anti-drug crusade – including Arnold Martinez’s young adult son, Axel. Besides the grim content, it is the film’s stylish neo-noir aesthetic that will be most apparent to viewers. It is often hard to believe that what one is witnessing on the screen is, in fact, non-fiction.

Rather than resemble a typical observational documentary that maintains a sort of everyday naturalism, On the President’s Orders is cinematic with a capital C. Everything is conveyed in the most major of keys. A loud score pulsates throughout the film, bestowing upon the documentary a certain operatic grandiosity. Sarbil, also the film’s cinematographer, will frame his subjects in the shadows and slowly zoom out to capture the physicality of Manila. On the President’s Orders reveals an unceasing day-to-day tragedy for those living in the Caloocan district. Barbed wire fences frame melancholy sunsets over the beach as friends jump into the waves and laugh, savouring innocent moments that may soon be lost. Police officers brandish their weapons on motorcycles and then handcuff a shirtless man to a chair as they rifle through his possessions. A funeral director with a small twisted face sits on a bench with his dog. The flicker from his TV reflects on his glass of Jack Daniels. He says the killings are good for business. Fires burn at dusk and children stand unblinkingly on stoops, barely seen. Officers eat from massive tables of food, drink and joke about their arrests, and exhibit little compassion towards the victims of their raids. The directives all come from Duterte’s mission to root out all drug activity, which is spoken in a divine rhetoric with troubling certainty.

The way that Sarbil harnesses light and shadow to contemplatively frame his subjects and then juxtapose them with action-packed police raids is reminiscent of Michael Mann, whose late 20th-century American crime films are unmistakable in their portrayal of gritty nights, elegantly illuminated by artificial bulbs and the glowing celestial sky. While we may have seen this technique staged by professional actors before, it is difficult to recall past instances where one is able to witness such horror unfold in a documentary setting.

Though it is apparent that this is an observational film that exposes the inexcusable and abominable behaviour from Philippine law enforcement teams, it is hard for the film to overcome its lack of context. The sensationalized portrayal of the events and the almost monotonous and oppressive cycle of violence that continues throughout the entirety of the film leaves the viewer with many unanswered questions. As Duterte is seemingly free to rule a nation with an iron fist, why is he one of the most popular presidents in the history of the Philippines? He is often portrayed as an ego-maniacal hothead by most Western media outlets, but he also defends his nation on an international stage. In this sense, he recently threatened Canada with retaliation after many shipments of Canadian garbage reportedly sat unattended in transport containers near Manila for almost a decade. The Philippines could become one of the hardest hit regions of climate change, and its islands have also been affected by numerous tragic natural disasters. Many of its people have had to relocate their entire lives overseas in order to support their families back home, often doing the work that wealthy individuals in Western nations refuse to accept. While Duterte may certainly be an unconscionable authoritarian figure, he might also oppose a Western hegemony that has subordinated non-Western nations for years.

Still, the purpose of On the President’s Orders remains perplexing. There is no doubting the creative approach of the filmmakers, as they tap into an atmosphere that is rarely accomplished in film today. It is refreshing to see a non-traditional documentary that does not need to rely on the formulaic “talking heads” approach to tell its story. This alone is quite an accomplishment. Yet, in order to balance the magnitude of violence portrayed on screen, it would be useful to uncover more about the ethos of a nation where this is all happening. Clearly, there are large demographics of people in the Philippines that do not support this violent regime. The film contains footage of an anti-Duterte rally where protestors condemn his waging of a war on the poor. But, in order to delve even deeper into this sentiment, it would be beneficial to learn about how the various class dynamics and economic conditions created a situation where such murderous behaviour could become so normalized. It would also be useful to hear from everyday citizens that support Duterte and not exclusively from police officers. What is it about Duterte’s political success that has made him attractive to millions of people? How has he accessed the subconsciousness of his constituents?

As this is a PBS Frontline-produced documentary that will be aired predominantly in the United States, there might not be enough subtext for the film to transcend a dualistic narrative that stokes sentiments of Western exceptionalism. Will North American audiences that watch this film only see the Philippines as a violent nation that is inferior to their own? Frontline is known for its military reportage from the frontlines of conflicts, but as we know by now, conflict typically is much more intricate than any physical battle might suggest. And, as this narrative is seemingly far from over, it may take years to ever really know the answers to many of the questions that the film avoids asking. Thus, there is a danger here that produces harmful simplifications of Philippine life for a mass audience, reducing a multitude of complexities to a heartbreaking and all-too-familiar story.

On the President’s Orders makes its North American premiere at Hot Docs 2019. Purchase tickets here.

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