20,000. That’s the number of deaths caused by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs since he was first elected in 2016.
With that number growing every day, rights activists are calling for international help to end the bloodshed that the government believes can clean society of dealers and users. But what they also want the international community to know is that these deaths are largely a result of police conducted extrajudicial killings.
The police deny these allegations, so two directors, Frenchman Olivier Sarbil and British James Jones, took it upon themselves to see what was happening with their own eyes.
What started as an investigative operation for them soon turned into the creation of On The President’s Orders, a feature-length documentary on the controversial drug war. The film shows unprecedented footage of the inside operations of the Filipino police force and SWAT team, and how the lives of entire families were destroyed by the war on drugs.
VICE spoke to Sarbil and Jones about the time they spent in Manila, and their experience joining the drug raids, talking to police officials, and their conversations with civilians.
VICE: Hi James and Olivier. So how did the project first come about?
James: The idea started growing when we finished up working on a film about the fight against ISIS. We thought, what project should we do next? We had been following the drug war for a while, and we were hearing all these stories from Manila about the deaths. After Olivier met some people with connections at a festival in France, we embarked on a one-week mission to Manila to see who we could gain access to. Unlike the usual narrative about the crimes, and how the police justified them, we wanted to get right into the killers’ head. We were lucky to meet the police chief we did, Jemar Modequillo, who was charismatic and flattered that we showed up willing to make a film about him. From that day onwards, the door was open and we worked on building trust with the police.
Who exactly gave you that in with the police in the Philippines?
James: The area where we filmed was in the news because the police had gotten in trouble for executing a teenager there, and it was caught on CCTV. The new police chief, Modequillo, came in saying he was going to turn it all around and stop the killings. It was a Filipino contact of Olivier that said, 'I know it sounds crazy but this police chief loves the attention and he might love the idea of a film crew following him around.' So we got in contact and he said yes, sure. I don't think he was aware of how long we would be filming for.
How did you explain the motive behind the documentary to Modequillo?
James: Clearly the drug war was our focus. Modequillo loved that Olivier had filmed with the special forces in Iraq, and that we'd both filmed in interesting places like that. Basically, their perception of the drug war was very different from our own. We just said we want to follow their cops around for a few months to explore the topic of the drug war. You would have thought that Modequillo would have seen us and understood we were there because his police force was known as one of the most bloody in the world, and be a bit wary about it. But he really wasn't. We were waiting for that moment but it never came.
So he never had the realisation that you guys wanted to uncover what the police was doing?
James: I think it's about perspective. Although he was publicly saying that they were cleaning up the killings, he would still say that killing is part of the police's job amid the drug war. We were really nervous when we would confront him and the head of the SWAT team about the 'riding in tandem' crimes. Because we were following them around and filming them for so long, they eventually started saying things that were a bit controversial. They would give us a half denial and half acceptance of what was happening.
What was it like joining the police on the drug raid we saw at the start of the film?
James: During those types of operations, there is usually a high chance that the police will shoot someone. The fact that we were there made it quite unlikely that they would do that though. One of the officers who was on that raid told us after it was over that he had his gun pointed to the suspect’s head, and he looked at his boss and asked, 'Can I do it boss?', and he said no. If we were not there, he probably wouldn't have said no. I think the police chief wanted us to go on that operation to prove that they could do it cleanly, without killing anyone.
What was it like when the SWAT team would patrol the slums at night?
James: We were never there when they would do the 'off duty' shootings. During the patrols, the head of the SWAT team would go around wearing a skeleton mask. These guys like the idea of being badass, they want people to be afraid of them. You don't wear a black skeleton mask unless you want to instil fear. And fear is such a big tool in the drug war. Although we never saw them doing anything that bad, it was the general sense of their willingness to project their power that was strong.
How did the civilians act, seeing the police being followed by you two?
James: During the operations, it was reassuring for some of them that the police had to be on their best behaviour. But in prison, it was really uncomfortable to watch the officers beating the prisoners. They were in such awful conditions, and the prison warden kept it pretty brutal. If the prison guard was stupid enough to hit people on camera though, then we have to show that. It's pretty revealing about the whole regime and the attitude towards prisons, as most people in there are in for drug charges.
Can you tell me what you knew about Duterte's presidency before the project started, and how your views changed as you were thrown on the ground?
James: We were both fascinated by his popular appeal, because he is a part of this wave of right-wing populist leaders who supposedly 'tell it how it is' and provide scapegoats to society. That's part of the reason why we called it On The President's Orders, because we wanted it to resonate with different audiences who have similar presidencies. When we first arrived it seemed like popular support for him was wavering. But with their last elections, he is stronger than ever. People genuinely believe that drugs are the biggest problem in the Philippines. It shows his propaganda is effective. We met one woman, who in front of her best friend who lost her child, would say: 'Yeah, I completely support the drug war.'
Olivier: When we first went, we went to see the war on drugs with our own eyes. Making the film wasn't the initial focus. What I saw confirmed what I knew, however. The police were convinced they were doing the right thing. They have no doubt in their mind that what they are doing is legitimate.
Did you speak to other family members and friends of those killed?
James: It’s interesting. We filmed a family who's dad was killed. Obviously, they thought it was wrong, and were outraged that they would never get justice. But when we asked them if the drug war works, they said yes. Even after being put through this awful suffering, and being tarnished as a drug family, they still have a default position that it works.
Having been on the ground, would you say there is perceivably less drug use?
James: The people getting killed are often the poorest of the poor, who are not big-time drug dealers making a lot of money, but taxi bike drivers who are taking that risk to make extra money for their family. These aren't big gangsters. It's very hard to say. Even if it worked, killing that many people indiscriminately is not viable. But perception-wise in the Philippines, the consensus is that it works.
How much of what you saw was direct orders from Duterte, and what was police corruption acting for its own gain?
James: It’s interesting because sometimes this whole issue is presented as if it came out of a vacuum. Modequillo has been a police chief for decades and has a bloody reputation. So the riding in tandem extrajudicial killings are not completely new. They are a police tool that have gone back a few years. Duterte has made it front and centre of the campaign and the number of killings have exploded. But he didn't invent this phenomenon. Duterte recognised that the judicial system was inefficient. People were getting arrested, waiting on the justice system for trials for years, getting out on bail and starting over, it’s a vicious cycle. There’s frustration in society because many people are getting away because of the system. Maybe Duterte thought that he could do this for a few months, and people would be so afraid that drug use would plummet and he would come out a hero. But actually, it's more complex than that.
Seeing the situation with your own eyes, do you understand their frustration?
James: It's hard. We were surprised at how many people, even middle class and educated people, love Duterte. As outsiders, it might be hard to understand. To many who were tired of the years of corruption before him, Duterte was a breath of fresh air. He doesn't act or speak like the usual politician. Personally, he says stuff about women which is pretty unpleasant. I'm not sure that his policies are really ridding corruption as he promised. But even after the Rappler scenario, I was actually pleasantly surprised to see a healthy media landscape in the Philippines, and there are a lot of papers that report honestly and critically. As an outsider, you would think an authoritarian leader would rid society of all these elements. Judicially, decisions are made pretty independently, even if inefficiently. The guy you saw get arrested in the film from the raid, he is out on bail. That is part of the reason the public gets frustrated.
What impact are you hoping this documentary will have on the debate around the drug war?
James: I just want to add that we are filmmakers, and maybe journalists to an extent. We are not activists. We went in there to understand the situation, not to make a decision. However, with what we saw, we’d be thrilled if the documentary could be used as a tool by the Human Rights Criminal Court or other organisations, because we do want the film to have an impact. We want to share the understanding we gained there.
On The President's Orders premiered at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival.