THE STORY – In 2016, President Rodrigo Duterte announced a “war on drugs” in the Philippines, setting off a wave of violence and murder targeting thousands of suspected drug dealers and users. With unprecedented, intimate access both to police officials implicated in the killings and the families destroyed as the result of Duterte’s deadly campaign, On the President’s Orders is a shocking and revelatory investigation into the extrajudicial murders that continue to this day. Entering a murky world of crime, drugs and politics, the filmmakers have managed to capture the clear trajectory of what depths those who wield excessive power can reach, when attacking those who have the very least.
THE CAST – Rodrigo R. Duterte
THE TEAM – James Jones and Olivier Sarbil (Directors/Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 72 Minutes
By Christopher Cross
While there’s no shortage of movies about drug wars, corruption, and the violence that can all entail, “On The President’s Orders” is one of the few that comes this close to the side of evil. Providing an often-ignored look at a police force in the Philippines, the documentary gives a glimpse into how corruption trickles down until the line between right and wrong is either willfully ignored or beyond repair. Focused on a terrible person currently leading a nation in a violent crusade, prepare for a journey on the dark side.
President Rodrigo Duterte took his seat in office as President of the Philippines in 2016 and immediately took aim at drug addicts and drug pushers (to him, they are one and the same). Directors James Jones and Olivier Sarbil take a look at Duterte’s war against drugs from an unlikely perspective – the police tasked with cracking down on the situation. Focused on the police presence in Caloocan City, Jones and Sarbil start their exploration of the situation when extrajudicial killings and unsolved murders have piled up to an exorbitant amount. All signs point to corruption and a police force concerned more with the president’s approval than that of the citizens.
The film speaks directly to two men in the police force, including Police Superintendent Modequillo, who acts as the leading force in the film. He’s essentially the Duterte stand-in as the President was never going to agree to do a documentary about this subject. Modequillo works great though as he seems to crave the attention and exemplifies the values that Duterte seems to exemplify in his speeches. However, the movie never really finds opposing beliefs about the drug war, and that may be because there are none, but it still feels like a notable omission. Instead, Modequillo runs the show with a steadfast belief that all of the drug war is good and there’s no reason for nuance between the lines.
It’s not enough that the filmmakers have such an unprecedented look into the side of the police, but that they don’t flinch when asking questions that could easily have an interview stopped. What becomes alarmingly obvious throughout “On The President’s Orders” is that many doubts anyone would have about the righteousness of the police’s actions tend to have dissipated or are tucked away from the public eye. Instead, sympathy for the victims of this war is only really shown through the perspective of a family in Caloocan and the head of a funeral parlor. Perhaps most shocking to viewers will be how much agreement there is with Duterte’s war on drugs.
This makes it all the more apparent why the documentary does not spend as much time on those hurt by the drug war and instead spends more of its time with the police, occupying a headspace that seems too loyal to Duterte to believe him to be in the wrong. There are raid scenes, security footage, and lots of overconfidence on the police side that is hard to turn away from. That footage is what defines “On The President’s Orders” and gives it its own legs to stand on. From there, it only makes sense to show a man dependant on death from the drug war (the funeral parlor owner) and to highlight a family inadvertently subjected to the merciless killing. Very little could be trimmed from this film as each thread feels connected to another in significant and damning ways.
The sympathy is still present throughout because Jones and Sarbil know the police think what they are doing is just and fair. So the scenes that tend to be shown highlight scenarios where what the police are doing can easily be seen as extreme for the situation. Edited against quotes from Duterte and showing very little of the environment itself, the film feels like it is being smothered by death. There’s a subtlety to how it is all edited that provides a condemnation while not feeling preachy – a tough balance for many documentaries and one that seems especially sensitive to the fact that people really do believe in Duterte’s war.
Much of what will drive people to see “On The President’s Orders” is the unprecedented footage that is captured. And that footage is all fantastic, but it isn’t what the film hangs its hat on. Instead, as we follow specific police officers we realize that there is something murkier in the waters – a lack of conscience. In the actions portrayed on screen and what’s left not said, it is clear that the word of a leader is much more powerful than an individual thought. Gritty and surreal, this depiction of the war on drugs has sentiments that echo outside of the Philippines and into our current political climate.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – A unique perspective provides unprecedented footage and lets audiences see a mindset that is often tough to digest.
THE BAD – Not much of an exploration within the police force. Instead, it relies on two figures, which provides a slightly less nuanced look from their perspective.