'On the President's Orders': Film Review

Courtesy of PBS FRONTLINE
A riveting account of the consequences of unfettered demagoguery.
10/18/2019

Documentary filmmakers James Jones and Olivier Sarbil plunge into the heart of Manila’s drug war to investigate Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s role in the deaths of thousands of dealers and addicts.

Like any major international city, Manila has a drug problem. Methamphetamines, often the drug of choice for the most impoverished, pose the biggest threat, but marijuana and illegal pills also turn up. Unlike most other cities though, The Philippines’ war on drugs is an open urban conflict, as police and shadowy, roaming gangs of vigilantes (widely rumored to be off-duty cops) have killed thousands of drug dealers, addicts and suspects over the past several years.

Orchestrating this chaotic internecine conflict, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte, a former big-city mayor who has been transformed under the national spotlight into a bombastic autocrat boasting a blustering Trumpian style, has sworn to wipe out drugs in the country. Since riding a populist wave into office in 2016 with an aggressive law-and-order agenda and a vow to eliminate drug crime, official statistics reveal that Duterte’s officially sanctioned police killings have claimed more than 4,000 lives, while reports from the streets place the death toll at more than double or triple that figure.

Filmmakers James Jones and Olivier Sarbil (pulling double duty as cinematographer) plunge into the repellently violent underbelly of Caloocan, a crime-ridden district of Manila, in a seemingly reckless attempt to document the drug conflict head-on. Ironically, they gain access to the local police force during a brief lull in the killings, as Duterte feigns an attempt to rein in the murderous mayhem by announcing policing reforms. The 2017 policy shift allows new chief Jemar Modequillo to take command of a thousand officers, many newly installed in Caloocan after the wholesale dismissal of their predecessors.

Modequillo, a gruff, burly man, attempts to charm the locals with community meetings, free meals and expressions of support for the president’s anti-drug campaign, warning his officers to step up arrests while reducing incidental deaths. At first, this tactic appears to be working, as Jones and Sarbil ride along with a special operations unit under Modequillo’s direct command that appears to be spending more time talking to residents than harassing them. When they go after a local dealer named Jimmy, it’s all very by-the-book, as the cops serve a search warrant, locate Jimmy’s stash and arrest him with a minimum of force.

Joining another patrol with the force’s SWAT team, a unit armed with automatic rifles pursuing paramilitary urban-warfare tactics, the filmmakers reveal that residents fear the police far more than they do the drug dealers, who are often their friends and neighbors. With their menacing weapons, bulky tactical gear and aggressive attitudes, these officers hardly project a “protect and serve” approach. Although police-led killings in Caloocan initially drop after Modequillo takes over, extrajudicial murders committed by mysterious assassins on motorbikes soon spike, calling the commander’s leadership into question and throwing the district into cowering chaos again.

Keeping in mind that the filmmakers can only capture a sliver of the city’s sprawling drug violence, it quickly becomes clear that Manila faces an overwhelming confluence of lawlessness, drug trafficking and political demagoguery. Although Duterte never appears onscreen, the film includes brief snippets of his vitriolic ramblings, making his disembodied threats to wipe out drug dealers all the more ominous.

Conveniently enough, it’s the president’s foot soldiers who willingly indict themselves on camera, as several police officers interviewed freely admit to their antipathy toward drug dealers and acknowledge the possible presence of murderers in their ranks, even hinting that Modequillo has a reputation as a stone-cold killer. Their frankness is so revealing that the International Criminal Court, currently investigating Duterte’s drug war, has requested a copy of the film to enter as evidence in their deliberations.

Sarbil and Jones, battle-hardened by the experience of shooting their Emmy-winning Frontline segment Mosul, show no hesitation plunging into the back alleys of Manila’s grittiest slums, trailing a police detail that may well have shoot-to-kill orders, or that could trigger a shootout with drug dealers at any turn. There’s barely any let-up in tension throughout the film, even during interviews with subjects who could either be concealing murderous personal histories or potential victims risking their lives to disclose the excesses of law enforcement.

Whatever the findings of the International Criminal Court, a respected global justice institution that Duterte has repeatedly discouraged and attempted to delegitimize, the president faces a record of alleged human rights abuses that will tarnish his legacy well into the future.

Distributor: FRONTLINE
Production companies: Frontline,
ARTE France, Mongoose Pictures, BBC Storyville
Directors: James Jones, Olivier Sarbil
Screenwriter: Olivier Sarbil
Producers: James Jones, Dan Edge
Executive producers: Raney Aronson-Rath, Mark Edwards, Mandy Chang, Hayley Reynolds, Sandra Whipham, Rebecca Lichtenfeld
Director of photography: Olivier Sarbil
Editor: Michael Harte
Music: Uno Helmersson

72 minutes