×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

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.

Director:
James Jones, Olivier Sarbil

1 hour 11 minutes

Official Site: http://www.onthepresidentsorders.com

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: 71 MIN.

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.

More Film

  • Judi Dench

    Judi Dench Says Works by Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey Should Be Respected

    Veteran British star Judi Dench has said that the work produced by Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey should be separated from the offenses they are alleged to have committed. Both Weinstein and Spacey face charges of sexual assault in the U.S., which they deny, and have been investigated in other jurisdictions as well, including Britain. [...]

  • Karlovy Vary Honorees

    Karlovy Vary Fetes Julianne Moore, Patricia Clarkson, Vladimir Smutny

    The Karlovy Vary Intl. Film Festival Honorees JULIANNE MOORE, Crystal Globe for Outstanding Artistic Contribution to World Cinema An actress, author and activist, Moore has long earned accolades on her diverse career path. More Reviews Film Review: 'The Other Story' Film Review: 'Annabelle Comes Home' The North Carolina native won a Daytime Emmy with her [...]

  • CLOSE QUARTERS – In Disney and

    Korea Box Office: ‘Toy Story 4,' ‘Aladdin’ Share Weekend

    Two Disney releases, “Toy Story 4” and “Aladdin” ruled the weekend box office in Korea. Opening on Thursday, “Toy Story 4” earned $8.54 million from 1.12 million admissions over its four opening days. The animated family adventure film accounted for 32% of the country’s total weekend box office. May release “Aladdin” slipped to second from [...]

  • Lendita Zeqiraj Agas House Movie

    Karlovy Vary Embraces New Voices From the East

    When Karlovy Vary Film Festival’s East of the West competition opened to submissions from the Middle East two years ago, festival artistic director Karel Och noted it was “about time to abandon the political definition of the ‘East of the West’ countries,” long determined by the geographical boundaries hemming in the former Soviet bloc. Though [...]

  • Let There Be Light Movie Marko

    Tough Competition in Spa Town Festival

    When the curtain rises June 28 on the 54th edition of the Karlovy Vary Intl. Film Festival, there will be a conspicuous absence among the 12 titles selected for the main competition: Czech directors. It’s just the second time this decade that the host country has failed to field a single entry in competition, a [...]

  • Diana Rigg, Terence Stamp Join Edgar

    Diana Rigg, Terence Stamp Join Edgar Wright’s ‘Last Night in Soho’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    Edgar Wright’s “Last Night in Soho” has rounded out its cast, with veteran actors Diana Rigg and Terence Stamp among the stars signing on for the latest movie from the “Baby Driver” director. Stamp can currently be seen in Netflix hit “Murder Mystery” with Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston. Rigg’s recent roles include Olenna Tyrell [...]

  • Zhang Zhao LeEco film

    Zhang Zhao, Chief of Le Chuang (Formerly Le Vision Pictures), Resigns

    Zhang Zhao, the chairman and CEO of Le Chuang Entertainment, formerly known as Le Vision Pictures, has resigned for “personal reasons,” the firm said.    Zhang’s resignation was announced in a statement posted to the firm’s official social media account Monday, which thanked him for his service. “Le Chuang will carry on as before, using [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content