In 2016, President Rodrigo Duterte announced a “War on Drugs” in the Philippines, launching a wave of violence and murder targeting thousands of suspected drug dealers and users, which, just in its first year, resulted in more than 3000 dead. Directors James Jones and Olivier Sabil were granted unprecedented, intimate access both to police officials implicated in the killings and the families destroyed as the result of Duterte’s deadly campaign, and their effort resulted in a quite thorough, analytical, but most of all, shocking documentary.
The “story” begins with the appointment of Chief Modequillo in one of the toughest districts in the country. Modequillo wants to change the police’s tactics, and he tries to teach his men “finger discipline”, not to be so eager to shoot, in an effort that proves quite difficult. The documentarians then deal with a police captain’s “endeavors”, the concept of the Drug Watch List (which is a black list if I ever saw one) a jail warden who keeps the numbers of the overpopulated prison in check with violence, and a number of police officers, who wear masks of monsters when working and laugh about the killings they have committed. However, the documentary also deals with the recipients, highlighting the extremeness of the police tactics through their consequences, while the most shocking revelations come when the two directors start dealing with the police vigilantes, with the footage of a cold-blooded murder attempt in broad daylight providing the most impact in the film.
The approach James Jones and Olivier Sarbil implement is ideal for the subject (and documentaries in general), with them being as thorough as possible (even presenting the side of funeral houses) and having earned the trust of the people they interview, which allows them to record the truth in shocking sincerity, even if, in the end, they included some off-the-record testimonies. Furthermore, they have placed themselves completely in the background, allowing their subject to speak for itself, with the only times we realize they are actually there being when asking some crucial questions.
Michael Harte’s editing is also exceptional, one of the best assets of the production, as it allows the documentary to unfold as a crime thriller, with the succession of the different footage keeping the interest for the whole of the film’s 72 minutes, which I also find ideal for a documentary.
The result is an in-your face revelation of a government policy that does not separate the users from the addicts in any way, and even more, that has allowed killings to be perceived as simply applying the law. And the fact remains, that as long as Duterte is in command, nothing will change, although the equally shocking fact is that he actually has a lot of people who agree with his tactics.
Not much more to say, if you want to learn about the actual circumstances of the War on Drugs, look no further, “On the President’s Orders” provides the perfect opportunity.