France, 2019. 1h 10min
Half a year into the Philippines’ so-called war on drugs, I interviewed two elderly women near the airport in a Metro Manila suburb. Both had lost sons to unidentified shooters and, as they were sure it was the local police, feared for their own lives. Still, the women remained determined in seeking justice even if, almost as sure, they would never get it.
After spending the day in their (deeply impoverished) neighbourhood, I went to one of Metro Manila’s oldest and most expensive gated communities, Forbes Park, where I was invited to a reception of Danish diplomats and expats. That evening, I was told to stop being so preoccupied with the war on drugs and the extrajudicial killings. Instead, I should write about all the good things president Rodrigo Duterte has done.
Before regaining my posture after hearing diplomats of a country boasting to defend freedom of speech telling a journalist what to write about and what to not, another followed up, saying: «You know, the war on drugs doesn’t really affect our daily lives. »
Wow, no shit, Sherlock. How could it possibly affect daily lives in Forbes Park? For the two ladies mourning their sons in a poor squatter area just a few stations away, however, it affected daily life quite a lot.
Facts and focus
Sometimes though, it does feel like everything has been said about Duterte’s war on drugs. It targets poor drug users, not rich drug lords. It creates congestion in the prisons as well as the morgues. It has done little or nothing to the drug industry as such. It has created the perfect amnesty for the killing of anyone who someone else may not like, including political dissenters. And yes, the official numbers of police killings are only the tip of the iceberg – of the thousands of unresolved drive-by-shootings, police are behind many of them.
« Both had lost sons to unidentified shooters and, as they were sure it was the local police, feared for their own lives »
The only people who deny these facts are either so-called «DDS – Duterte Diehard Supporters» (of which many do not deny these facts, they just do not find them worrying) – or, simply, cynics who could not care less about the actual lives lost but who, for some reason, have vested interest in redirecting the focus.
Killings and killings
So why do we need another documentary on this subject? I am not sure we do. Action would be timelier, but if the award-winning French documentary director, Olivier Sarbil can get more people to realize what is, in fact, going on in the Philippines, On the President’s Orders (as his documentary is titled), then fine.
The documentary – premiering at CPH:DOX – zooms in on Caloocan, a highly urbanized city in the northern part of Metro Manila. The reason behind this location is Duterte has changed its chief of police twice during his war on drugs first two years. It was one of the drug war’s most violent zones, where bodies piled up from the outset. In response to citizen protests, the chief of police was replaced. For a short while the killings almost stopped until resuming in a new form.
« the war on drugs doesn’t really affect our daily lives. »
As such, the location is well picked and the narrative smoothly structured. The documentary’s crew also managed to get valuable interviews and sources from amongst the police, as well as from local citizens, just as the recordings are neatly shot and edited.
Those who leave and those who stay
However, more than a French documentary crew (or Danish freelance journalist) who can arrive and leave, those who deserve credit for their tireless and fearless documentary efforts are the local Philippine journalists, who face a variety of repercussions for doing their jobs. From being assaulted and killed – Philippines has long been one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists, no less so under Duterte – to being constantly harassed with lawsuits, such as the editors of Rappler are being.
Nonetheless, On the President’s Orders shows – with all (un)desired clarity – how the Philippine president has created a permission structure for mass murder, as a protester phrases it. Films such as this ought to contribute to making drug war apologetics think twice, though it probably will not.