‘On the President’s Orders’: How Filmmakers Embedded in a Philippines Police Unit to Document Duterte’s Drug War

June 14, 2019
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by Catherine Trautwein Tow Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowship

A police officer on a night patrol in Manila, Philippines. (Olivier Sarbil/FRONTLINE)

When filmmakers James Jones and Olivier Sarbil decided to investigate President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs in the Philippines, they went straight to the people carrying out the brutal crackdown.

Over four months filming, they embedded with a police unit in Caloocan, Manila, giving them an unfiltered glimpse into their world. “When you’re really embedded with people, they just forget you’re there, and whether they’re beating a prisoner in the jail or kind of laughing about killing these people because they’re just pests, you’re getting to like the real essence of who they are,” Jones said.

The resulting film, On the President’s Orders, provides an in-depth look at the impact of Duterte’s policies, which since 2016 may have resulted in as many as 27,000 deaths. FRONTLINE sat down with Jones and Sarbil to discuss how they found their story, how they handled violence on film and what they want audiences to take away.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Can you talk about the origins of the film and how you met your subjects?

James Jones: Olivier and I were just finishing the edit for our film Mosul, and the drug war in the Philippines was something we’d both been following quite closely — mainly through amazing photojournalism coming from Filipino journalists. We felt we could tell the story in a slightly new way using the techniques we’d used for Mosul: getting access to the cops, winning their trust, getting inside their heads and starting to understand whether they were really the killers — and what the rationale was for killing people in such extraordinary numbers.

As we got to Manila we thought, “Oh God, this is just the worst possible moment.” Duterte had had to remove the police from the drug war because they’d been kind of caught out for basically executing a teenager on CCTV. For once, Duterte is not going to be proud of the drug war, and they’re not going to want to give us any access at all.

We went to a couple of police stations and we were met with, “Send a letter to the ministry and maybe we’ll think about access.” Then, one local journalist mentioned Caloocan — which was actually like the hotspot for the whole drug war — and said, “There’s this new police chief who is a bit of an egomaniac, he’s quite vain, and he might just love the idea of like a British, French, American crew traveling half the world to make a film about him.”

Olivier and I just showed up to the Caloocan main police station and after 15 minutes we were sat in his office. Pretty much immediately he agreed to give us access. Quite quickly it became clear we could just wander around the police station and kind of talk to everyone. From then on, it was just a matter of me and Olivier winning the trust of the individual officers so they would talk to us honestly, take us on operations, and give us a proper insight into the work they were doing in the drug war.

Olivier Sarbil: We didn’t go through the official press police administration. We knew that if we [did] we probably would have someone watching us all the time. We had really to win the trust of the chief of police and, like James said, it took us days, weeks, to get that trust. At some point we were able to go in and out of the police station. We became sort of invisible.

The film’s style is cinematic. How did you decide what it should look like?

Sarbil: It’s a story filled up with violence and darkness, so we wanted to create a style with a dramatic mood, a tense and atmospheric look with very carefully composed shots. We think that style helps to create an emotional connection with the city to enhance our character’s feelings and the story.

Jones: We both wanted the film to be cinematic, and neither of us think that detracts from the journalism of the film or the grittiness or importance of the subject. But it’s a choice to try and make the film as compelling as it possibly can be, that makes it more powerful rather than less. We wanted it to feel almost like a thriller on the streets of Caloocan.

The style of the film was supposed to create the atmosphere of tension that people feel. There is something dark and unsettling about the atmosphere in the slums, because the drug war is about creating a sense of fear.

Olivier and I both come from journalistic backgrounds, but we also want to push the form of what a feature documentary could be. We want it to play in cinemas alongside movies, and we want to appeal to different audiences and all the rest of it.

There are some violent moments in the film. How did you decide what to include?

Jones: We didn’t want it to be an ambulance-chasing film that would just show body after body and not really go any deeper. But at the time same time, it is a violent world. This is a violence subject, and people are being killed. We knew there needed to be, not graphic for the sake of being graphic, but moments that conveyed that horror of what was happening. It’s a delicate balance.

Have the subjects of the film seen it? What were their reactions?

Jones: They’ve seen the trailer. We speak to a lot of them, but they haven’t yet seen it. It will play in Manila at some point. I think we know what the people will think of it, but I think the police’s reaction will be interesting. If they saw it in isolation, they might quite like the fact that they come across as kind of scary. You don’t go patrolling on the streets of Manila at night wearing a skeleton mask unless you want to instill fear in people. But I think the reaction internationally and domestically might mean that they get some scrutiny for their actions and what they say.

Hopefully the film will get quite a lot of attention for the subject and people will examine the behavior of the police and probably be quite shocked by some of it. So I think their reaction will be complicated and quite hard to predict.

What are you hoping that viewers take away from the film? 

Jones: Neither of us see ourselves as activists, we’re journalists and filmmakers primarily. We went into the film with an open mind, but having filmed there I think we both hope that it does raise awareness of this issue and also raise awareness of what a populist leader who uses propaganda to create a strong-man platform can do. We called it On the President’s Orders because it’s supposed to resonate universally.

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