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A motorized tricycle driver awaits passengers on a bustling road in Metro Manila. A few seconds later, a pair of masked men riding a motorcycle gun him down in front of his small child in broad daylight. As he staggers and eventually collapses, bystanders look on in shock but not necessarily in disbelief, unwilling to assist him only until later when his lifeless body starts to block traffic.
It is a sight that unfolds with such horrifying realization. One that should provoke alarm and outrage. But in Rodrigo Duterte’s Philippines, it has become the norm. And it is with this image Olivier Sarbil and James Jones’s new documentary feature, "On the President’s Orders," launches its exploration into how such terror takes place and what it has wrought.
The film covers nearly a half-year period from late 2017 to early 2018 in Metro Manila, amid President Duterte’s promises to scale back his drug war, which at the time had already claimed the lives of 3000 suspects. One of its focal characters is Jemar Modequillo, a newly assigned police chief in the district of Caloocan, then considered the epicenter of the carnage.
Several officers under his command are also given weight, such as Captain Will Cabrales, who leads Modequillo’s Special Operations Unit charged with rooting out drug suspects. His baby face looks and easy-going demeanor belie his calm focus when it comes to his job. In one key scene he describes how to conduct a drug search at a suspect’s home via indirect means. In another, he calmly mentions to his squad members not to mention anything incriminating on camera.
There is Sergeant Adolfo Augustin, leader of the SWAT team, whose chuckling wide-eyed grin whenever he is questioned about extra-judicial killings is beyond unsettling. Jail Warden Octavio Deimos likes to beat prisoners’ hands hanging out of their cells while berating them to no end. Other police staff figure throughout the film, mostly intimidating Caloocan’s poor denizens who have been singled out on watch lists they’ve drawn up with local officials. We see them coercing “suspects” to surrender for impressive statistics or randomly harassing young passers-by via “stop and frisk” while wearing skull half-masks.
These heavy-handed activities are all taken in the company of the police with alarming intimacy, as Oliver Sarbil (who handles the shooting) embeds his camera without any overseeing government authority or competing news media. This subject matter is rife for titillation, voyeurism and exploitation, but thankfully never succumbs to these temptations so common in sensational news reporting. There is no rapid cutting, no shaky camera work, no exciting music to trump up the action, no gimmickry. Accounts from news journalists do not visually interrupt in grizzly detail, but through soft background narration playing over aerial drone footage of the shanty metropolis, giving a sense of the city’s breadth and ordeal. There isn’t even a narrator to audibly shape our feelings and expectations. Just sparsely sown yet clear and concise title captions that help give context to the unfolding story. Every shot is confident and composed, conveying stillness and purpose rarely seen in films relying on handheld camerawork.
The film also allows itself to breathe, with measured pacing and moments of contemplation that allows its people and events to resonate. We see police squads spending time after a raid over karaoke or handfed meals. Officers are allowed to ruminate their musings on camera often incriminating themselves in their body language and lack of self-awareness. We encounter the lack of training, resources and capability they are saddled with and see genuine sadness in the ranks when a leader is relieved despite all the wrongs that have been carried out of ignorance. This is the kind of rapport that filmmakers can only achieve through trust and familiarity, which Jones and Sarbil must have invested at length.
This police perspective is juxtaposed against that of the impoverished citizenry whom they tower over. We meet Orly Fernandez, the manager of a local funeral service that Is open 24/7, who equates the lives of people to that of chickens ready for slaughter (a Filipino aphorism that is widely held). We see scores of prisoners who have opted for jail time without habeus corpus rather than risk being executed when they least expect it. We listen to the victims’ survivors, such as Loremie Sevilla, who testifies to a non-existent judiciary (“If you are poor you don’t get justice.”). We meet their powerless children whose blank faces reveal a suppressed yet seething resentment and anger.
This repressed sense of wronging is channeled primarily through the film’s other focal character, Alex Martinez, a self-described gang leader and breadwinner. He shares instances of police abuse and implicates their murderous culpability. Though he describes himself as a “padre de pamilya,” his life inspires greater pity than fear. He, like most of the people whom Sarbil profiles, is merely trying to survive.
That is the true tragedy which this documentary lays bare. Everyone, from the police to the policed, is trapped by poverty and the machinations of the powers that be. The undertaker, despite his round-the-clock business, doesn’t believe Duterte is responsible even when the latter admits it from the very beginning. The cops believe that they are on the side of good, even when they have disregarded the law. And the oppressed who are constantly patrolled day by day by their would-be oppressors, are left to a dead end. Many of them slain after surrender.
“Being a good soldier means we must be a good follower,” says Chief Modequillo. The slave mentality rules this place. No questions asked. None are the wiser. All of which Jones and Sarbil capture with haunting beauty and sensitivity. They capture Manila’s sprawling metropolis and the overwhelming sense of hopelessness and despair providing relief and levity in moments few and far between. Metro Manila has never looked darker, and its flickering lights have never shone more urgent.
The one thing that will forever haunt me is the laughter. Throughout the Philippines’ post-war history, learning to laugh at our misfortunes has been the Filipino’s saving grace. It is our defense mechanism. Our solace. But in this film, with each inexplicable laugh from every questioned cop, it becomes an acknowledgement of inhumanity. A “you got me” moment. A defeated and knowing shrug.
And when the laughs come from poor souls answering to police, it becomes a veiled cry of mercy. For Filipinos who know, it’s unbearable to watch. But it must be seen.
"On the President’s Orders" is a special documentary that doesn’t try to ask all the questions or provide any possible answers. It simply testifies to our dark age of cruelty and dehumanization. Like the great documentarian duo of the Ross brothers, Jones and Sarbil exhibit great empathy by simply watching and listening to people and places, rather than telling us what to think. And, in this instance, bearing witness to the monstrous policies of the Philippine President, who asks: “’Do not do drugs and kill our children because I will kill you.’ So, what is wrong with that statement?”
God help us if we don’t know the answer.
The US leg of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival runs from June 13 through June 20, shining a much needed spotlight on human rights abuses throughout the world through challenging storytelling that pushes for empathy and justice for all.
ON THE PRESIDENT'S ORDERS will screen on June 15, 8:30pm at the Film at Lincoln Center's Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center. A Q&A to follow with the filmmakers James Jones and Olivier Sarbil, hosted by Carlos Conde, Researcher, Asia Division at HRW.
A nightmare movie ruled by nightmare logic, and gorgeous from start to finish.
From a childhood of pain, a lifetime of art.