Filmart: Filipino Filmmakers Divided by Duterte

Illustration by Mario Zucca

The Philippines’ combative president has stirred controversy with his deadly crackdown on the country’s drug trade, but he’s also received surprising support from some of the most respected figures in the local film sector.

Since taking office as the 16th president of the Philippines in June 2016, Rodrigo Duterte quickly became one of the most divisive leaders on the world stage. Outspoken, unconventional and polarizing, there have been inevitable comparisons to Donald Trump. The pillar of Duterte’s election campaign was a pledge to eradicate his country’s drug problems, advocating the summary execution of tens of thousands of users and pushers. Estimates of the number of extrajudicial killings — now referred to locally as EJK — in the months since his election range from 2,000 to 7,000.

The film industry is as split as the country at large. Some are horrified by the killings, which many believe have included numerous innocent victims, and fear the country is in danger of becoming a pariah in the international community. Others have expressed their support for the president and his policies, saying many outside the country fail to understand the seriousness of its drug problem (predominantly methamphetamine).

The Philippines was once a popular location for Hollywood movies, standing in for Vietnam in Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Hamburger Hill and Born on the 4th of July. Safety concerns are one reason international productions have been wary of coming to the country in recent years, though whether Duterte’s bloody drug war will exacerbate or alleviate the situation is also a matter of dispute.

Brillante Mendoza, known for his hyper-realism, sympathetic portrayals of poor Filipinos and examinations of social injustice, is the country’s most internationally celebrated director whose films have competed at Cannes, Venice and Berlin. A perhaps unlikely supporter of a war whose casualties are almost exclusively the disadvantaged, Mendoza is an unapologetic cheerleader for Duterte.

“My take on this is that not everything you read is 100 percent true,” Mendoza tells The Hollywood Reporter, referring to the mostly critical media coverage of the killings. “People are conditioned to believe what they want to believe; unless you have personal experience of what is happening, like knowing people who were killed by criminals or saved by the police, you don’t really understand.”

Mendoza believes the local and international media should investigate thoroughly themselves, including joining the police on drug raids, before reporting on the situation. “If people want change, there will be sacrifices, it’s a lifetime work. The president is trying to do something, not everything he is doing is right and it will be a long, hard journey,” adds Mendoza.

The director has made two short public information films about the drug war, but said he declined a request from a senior government member to make a feature about the EJK because “it would end up being propaganda.” This month, Mendoza won best director honors at the 2017 Malaysia Global Awards for Ma’ Rosa. It was researching that film, a tale of a mother who begins small-time dealing to survive, which he says opened his eyes to the depth of the drug problem.

Mendoza is currently working on his first TV series, about the illegal drug trade, for which he says he’s “been given a free hand by the network.” Preparing for the 13-part series, Mendoza interviewed drug lords and police officers and went to prisons to speak to former drug dealers. Titled Amo, a local term for boss, Mendoza says the series will take an uncompromising look at the drug problem, including “the police, corrupt officials, the people ordering killings and those who are getting protected.”

“The challenge is that children will be watching, so we have to be careful what we include,” adds Mendoza, who plans to release an uncensored “director’s cut” online after the series begins screening in April.

Dealing with current events is a strong tradition for Filipino filmmakers, according to Liza Dino-Seguerra, the new chairperson of Film Development Council of the Philippines. “Philippine cinema is very reflective of what is happening in the country — a lot of storytellers really delve into social issues,” she says. “There are a lot of films now exploring the issues of the drug war. We take pride in freedom of expression, there is no censorship.”

Appointed by the current administration, Dino-Suguerra is a less unexpected supporter of the president’s actions. “A lot of Filipinos support it, if you live in a place that is drug-infested, you can’t walk the streets in safety; this is a nightmare that people have been living,” she continues. “I honestly believe that unconventional as his methods are, the president has his heart in the right place, he truly loves this country. It’s not just a drug war; it’s narco-politics. We didn’t know cartels existed or that drug labs existed in so many places, it wasn’t brought to the forefront.”

Another leading Filipino director, Erik Matti, known for his crime thrillers Honor Thy Father and On the Job, is less than enthused by the president, but believes the drug war has inadvertently shifted the taste of local audiences toward weightier themes.

“The Philippines has a very strong rom-com and love story film culture, they make a lot of money at the box office,” says Matti. “But since the change of government in May, there has been only one successful love story film and that was not so big. Maybe the aspirational element of those films doesn’t work now, it’s not appealing. People aren’t in La La Land.

At the 42nd Metro Manila Film Festival, which ran from Christmas Day until Jan. 7, Matti’s horror film Seklusyon won eight major awards, including for best director. The best short award went to EJK, a film by actor Bor Ocampo about the drug war. During the festival, the Hollywood fare that usually dominates the box office is taken out of theaters to give local films a chance to shine.

Seklusyon is about the church being infiltrated by the devil, it’s sort of an allegory, and it made money, even at Christmas, and we are a very Catholic country,” explains Matti, who says the mood of the nation has changed since Duterte came to power. Matti is about to start shooting a martial-arts actioner Buy Bust — the title refers to police stings to arrest dealers in the act — which he says was inspired by current events in the Philippines.

“It’s kind of an essay about what’s wrong with the whole thing,” says Matti. “The challenge is to write material that isn’t propaganda.”

The filmmaker has no concerns for his own safety, even though he deals with controversial topics, but is worried that the current news cycle and Duterte’s administration may deter international productions from coming to the country. “The history of international productions shooting here has been lucrative and started in the 1980s when the industry realized that it was cheap and the crews were hard working,” says Matti.

Hollywood productions mostly stopped coming to the country after local corruption left salaries unpaid from Jonathan Kaplan’s Brokedown Palace, which shot there in 1998, according to Matti. (The shoot also saw Claire Danes declared persona non grata in the country for badmouthing Manila by then President Joseph Estrada, a former actor.) They returned in a major way in 2012, when Bourne Legacy shot in Manila for two months, but the Philippine peso is up about 20 percent against the dollar since then, adding a financial barrier to the safety worries.

Both Dino-Seguerra and Mendoza believe concerns about safety are being overblown.

“Security issues have been around before the drug war, but it’s safe here,” says Dino-Seguerra. “There’s one area where these kidnappings are happening, but it’s concentrated there.” Mendoza, meanwhile, is prepared to do what he can to aid international productions. “Come and shoot in the Philippines, you’ll be safe,” he assures. “I’ll be here and glad to help you. I have no security, even when I shoot in the slums. If you’re sincere and not exploiting people for the sake of a film, you’ll be okay.”