Review: ‘On the President’s Orders’ zeroes in on the Philippines’ deadly war on drugs

Late night interrogation of residents suspected of drug dealing in Caloocan, Manila, by police in the documentary "On the President's Orders."
(PBS Frontline)

The succinct documentary “On the President’s Orders,” from co-directors Olivier Sarbil and James Jones, wastes no frames as it artfully chronicles the dehumanizing effects of hateful rhetoric turned policy in the Philippines under Rodrigo Duterte, a head of state who proudly compares himself to Hitler, and whose war on drugs has resulted in a body count of thousands.

Concentrated on Caloocan, an urban hot spot for criminal activity in the outskirts of Manila, the filmmakers procure a balanced pool of subjects while valiantly inquiring about the unspoken practices implemented with the impunity granted by the country’s highest authority. Equating drug users with drug pushers, Duterte doesn’t attack the systemic poverty at the core of the substance epidemic, but instead viciously punishes indiscriminately through death squads targeting those on a watch list.

Sarbil, as cinematographer, captures the footage with attention to graceful framing and evocative light sources for an ethereal finish. To supplement the requisite interviews with vocal players in the government sanctioned slaughtering of civilians, indelible imagery — including a father being shot point blank or a corpse being washed at the morgue — supplies the poignancy necessary to appreciate the gravity of the nightmare on a human level.

Feared police chief Jemar Modequillo and his minions, such as a correctional officer who’s taken the liberty to physically torture inmates he considers vermin, elucidates the unsettling rationalization of evil and obedience that enable despicable occurrences to flourish. A shockingly alarming investigation produced with the sensibilities of a social realist drama, Sarbil and Jones’ nonfiction warning should petrify U.S. viewers immeasurably.

‘On the President’s Orders’

In Filipino and English with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 12 minutes

Playing: Starts October 18, Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica