Hot Docs Film Review: ‘On the President’s Orders’

James Jones and Olivier Sarbil's docu-thriller heads chillingly into the frontline of Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte's corrupt drug war.

'On the President's Orders' Review: A
Courtesy of PBS Distribution

The war on drugs has never taken more literal form than under the command of Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte, who rose to power on a pledge to rid the country of dealers and addicts alike — and delivered on his promise in the bloodiest fashion possible, with police summarily executing thousands of people over an 18-month period. A real-life atrocity ordered by a cartoon dictator, it would, if not grimly factual, feel like the stuff of grotesque dystopian fiction. In their kinetic, pavement-pounding doc “On the President’s Orders,” filmmakers James Jones and Olivier Sarbil play up to that sense of deranged reality as they hit the streets to observe Duterte’s murderous campaign in action: The result, shot and cut with buzzing urgency, plays as a propulsive dirty-cop thriller minus any genre safety nets.

Though “On the President’s Orders” will probably find the bulk of its audience when it arrives on television and streaming platforms — Frontline and the BBC’s international documentary label Storyville are producing partners — it’s a wholly cinematic, sensory experience, with straight-ahead reportage electrified by glaring streetlights and a panicked urban wall of sound. It would make a handsome companion piece to Filipino auteur Brillante Mendoza’s recent “Alpha, the Right to Kill,” a fictionalised Duterte-era action film that aimed for grainy docu-realism as much as Jones and Sarbil’s film trades in more sleekly immersive atmospherics.

That polish comes at no cost to the film’s political ire, as Duterte’s kill fetish is presented as an extreme manifestation of the right-wing populism that has swept such improbable world leaders as Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro to power. We are reminded that Trump himself has heartily endorsed Duterte’s drug-war tactics, while the Filipino president has admitted to not “[giving] a sh-t” about human rights in this matter. Political analysis, however, is not the objective; Jones and Sarbil would rather show the hands-on, sidewalk-level consequences of his policy.

Central to the film’s narrative is Jemar Modequillo, the police chief appointed to clean up the vast, troubled Manila district of Caloocan in 2017 — after the scale of extra-judicial deaths in the first year of Duterte’s campaign attracted a public outcry. Promises are made to temper the situation; initially, Modequillo appears to be a more humane face of the law, even if his public statements (“If we can resolve things without the death penalty, why not?”) are less than emphatic. If the body count seems to drop for a period, alarm bells ring when victims with drug-trade affiliations start turning up dead in murkier circumstances.

The war has simply gone underground, with police (dehumanized in grueling training rituals to which the film also remarkably gains access) running brutal death squads. Ruthless nighttime raids are followed by celebratory karaoke gatherings; it’s a living, and the filmmakers are somehow witnesses to all of it. On the flip side, the film follows the growing awareness of this corruption among civilians, most affectingly via the arc of young siblings Axel and Fujiko, whose father, one of many on the police’s watch list, is shot dead in broad daylight. Axel is certain Modequillo’s forces are responsible; the building resistance from a restless public to callous authorities amplifies the film’s brittle, snappish tension. (“Maybe you’re the one who’s killing here,” says a cop to a boy wearing a bluntly worded “Do Not Kill” T-shirt.)

Production values here are so dazzlingly high that, for entire sequences at a time, riveted viewers may forget to wonder just how Jones and Sarbil managed to force a camera into the fray. Sarbil, a gifted cameraman who won a cinematography Emmy for his and Jones’s 2017 Frontline episode on Mosul, shoots the nighttime raids with a hot, athletic immediacy that the aforementioned Mendoza (or even Michael Mann) would covet in a fictional context; bodies are silhouetted in the glare of emergency lights, though amid the shadows, we also get close-up glimmers of strained faces on all sides of the law. The idea here is not to aestheticize a human rights crisis, but to show the absurd movie-logic shoot-’em-up that Duterte has allowed the Philippines to become, right down to the “Fury Road”-style death’s-head masks worn by the executors. Populist politics can turn all too easily to popcorn ones; “On the President’s Orders” vividly captures the tipping point.

Hot Docs Film Review: ‘On the President’s Orders’

Reviewed at Hot Docs Film Festival (World Showcase), April 27, 2019. (Also in CPH: DOX — competing.) Running time: <strong>71 MIN.</strong>

  • Production: (Documentary — U.K.) A Frontline, ARTE France production in co-production with Mongoose Pictures in association with BBC Storyville, Bertha Doc Society. (International sales: PBS Distribution, Boston.) Producers: James Jones, Dan Edge, Raney Aronson-Rath. Executive producers: Mandy Chang, Hayley Reynolds, Mark Edwards, Sandra Whipham, Rebecca Litchenfeld.
  • Crew: Directors: James Jones, Olivier Sarbil. Camera (color): Sarbil. Editor: Michael Harte. Music: Uno Helmersson.