By Noel Vera
Directed by Brillante Mendoza
WHEN streaming giant Netflix announced that it would be showing pro-Duterte filmmaker Brillante Mendoza mini-series shot and set in the Philippines (it was produced by TV5 but never aired), the intention was clear from the get-go: to present “the other side of the coin” (as Mendoza states in an interview) of the drug war: “Yes, it (the drug war) is necessary for the Philippines — not only for the Philippines but also other countries afflicted with the drug problem.”
When interviewed by The Telegraph, Mendoza’s response (after the initial outcry) was more measured: “This series will show the two sides of the coin,” he said (italics mine). “The message is that we should all understand that there is a (drugs) situation in the Philippines… and now the government has really got very tough about it.” He adds, “I’m not saying that it should be addressed in the way that this government is dealing with it. But people tend to criticize and to give their opinions without even going deeper into the issue.”
At least one human rights group has already voiced its opinion: The International Network of People who Use Drugs (INPUD) on hearing Netflix’s declaration that the series is a “bold and suspenseful show that has the potential of capturing thrill-seeking audiences worldwide” has replied in an open letter: “This is a humanitarian crisis, not entertainment fodder.”
As for the series itself? Well, let me tell you.
The season is divided into 13 episodes — sounds expansive till you realize each episode is barely a half-hour long. The first story arc focuses on Joseph (Vince Rillon), a street-level dealer who appears on a list of suspects, and his uncle Camilo (Allen Dizon), a policeman who deals with Joseph’s problem. The second has Joseph recruited by his brother-in-law Bino (Felix Roco) as courier dealing higher-end drugs — mixed-cocktail pills of “green amore” (ecstasy, shabu [crystal meth], and Cialis [a milder form of Viagra]). Third has Uncle Camilo partnering with fellow officer Rod (Derek Ramsey) to observe the activities of suspected drug lord Takeo (Yoshihiko Hara).
The series has been compared to Netflix’s other drug-suffused series Narcos though I see major differences: Narcos focused on the rise and fall of outsized real-life drug lord Pablo Escobar; Amo takes newspaper accounts and anecdotes from real life and presents them in a lightly fictionalized setting. Narcos relies heavily on voice-over narration to add context and link otherwise disparate storylines together; Amo does not (there are advantages and disadvantages to this). Narcos employs the cliched “handheld footage cut to a frenetic rhythm” style but also on occasion settles down for portentous shots of dark figures discussing deep matters in shadowy rooms; Amo is characteristic of Mendoza’s earlier work: shaky-cam, nervous cutting, night scenes shot mostly under the amber glow of sodium street lamps.
One major difference I’d like to point out: Narcos outlines events that happened decades ago, from the 1970s up to the ’90s; Amo presents events of the past year, roughly since Duterte took power.
Narcos, however imperfectly and clumsily (the endless voice-overs), dramatizes a narrative that has already been pored over and evaluated by historians and by those involved. Amo sips of events happening now and by appropriating what is whispered and speculated rather than what has been recorded and confirmed, it — whether intentionally or not — adds its own interpretation to those events. The series shapes what may be into what it believes is, and because this is Netflix — the single most popular online streaming platform in the world, not just the Philippines or the United States — the series does so with a voice all out of proportion to any other voices that may be raised in contradiction.
In other words, Mendoza, who has said time and time again that he is for Duterte’s war on drugs, has found a loudspeaker far louder and more powerful than anything he has used before. And Netflix has a potential hit on its hands made out of material with questionable authenticity, not to mention sincerity.
Take for example the first story arc. Joseph’s activities are, for the most part, what we know or hear about street-level pushers: he leads the life of an ordinary student, sneaks out to sell packets of meth to neighbors and friends. Later Joseph (skip the next two paragraphs if you plan to watch the series) witnesses an EJK — an extrajudicial killing as these murders have come to be known — performed by the police and it’s significant that Mendoza frames it thusly: the victim is a known dealer (we have seen him working with Joseph) and a group of rappers immediately after sing the following words: “I will take the law into my own hands / Don’t give a damn about the consequences… No man a comrade but a judge / No more time to let you stay longer / I’ll get you first before you finish us all… The diseased tree must be cut down.”
The killing itself is done offscreen, with a van nearby and a gun going off in the shadows; Mendoza is enough of an artist (but we know this from his previous work) to imply rather than directly show the police doing this. Instead he leaves it to his rapper-chorus to tell us what to think or feel about the whole thing — in effect apologizing for and justifying the officers’ terrible but necessary actions.
Later, Joseph identifies a fellow gang member as an informer, partly responsible for the killing; the gang decides to retaliate and how they retaliate is significant (again, skip the rest of the paragraph if): they stab the informer to death, hang him up against a wall, hang a cardboard sign on his body (“Huwag tularan, adik ako (Don’t imitate, I’m an addict)!”). One of the Duterte regime’s most common explanations for the EJKs is that they were killings performed by gang members against one another, and this sequence reinforces that narrative, with one jarring detail: EJKs are performed using guns, the police’s preferred method of execution. Granted a low-level street gang probably could not afford a firearm, why then would they even attempt to pin this death on the police? Especially as no one would believe them?
The second story arc doesn’t add much one way or another except to say that there’s more to the story than street-level drugs, and that the cocktail drug scene is sexier and more glamorous, with considerably more money involved. Joseph goes to bed with a number of folks including a wealthy male buyer (Implying what exactly — that homosexuality is a rich man’s decadent indulgence? Not sure I like that). The cops (again skip the rest of this paragraph if) descend on all wrongdoers involved with breathtaking alacrity, reducing this arc to a Public Service Announcement, only with an insidious implication: the police (and mainstream media) only care about drugs when the pretty daughter of a rich man dies, and her passing is pasted in large headlines. The poor? Fuck them.
The third story arc features the return of Joseph’s rather shady uncle Camilo. Camilo had been instrumental in getting Joseph cleared of his drug testing, implying that, yes, the series is aware of corruption among officers’ ranks. Here Camilo, with newcomer Rod, conspire to kidnap Takeo and, again, a jarring detail (skip the next three paragraphs if): if their intent was to raise money for themselves why conduct the kidnapping as if it was a police raid? When interrogated the maids and family later testify that the men shouted “Police!” when entering the house — which, when I reviewed the scene, the men don’t actually do (it’s a confusing scene though, and possible Mendoza is suggesting the witnesses misremembered); later the men intimidate Takeo into opening his safe, and finding several bags of what looks like cocaine — they immediately declare that he’s “under arrest” and quote the specific laws he has violated.
In the middle of a kidnapping? Really?
Again, justice descends on the wrongdoers with breathtaking speed, leaving one with the thought that “If the Philippine police worked this fast in real life then we wouldn’t have a drug problem. Or crime problem. Or any problems in the country whatsoever.” Camilo’s boss blusters and bluffs and at one point you wonder if he’ll perform his own act of vigilante justice… but no, he ultimately sticks to the law, giving up a much chastened Camilo to the authorities and the waiting press.
I don’t think we should be focusing on what Amo says — it’s fairly well done considering the budget and overlooking a few gigantic inconsistencies — as we should on what the series doesn’t say. It refuses to suggest that anything Duterte has said and done (aside from a few speeches droning faintly in the background) has anything to do with what’s happening here. It refuses to suggest that the press has an alternative interpretation involving an unspoken government policy of killing low-level low-income citizens involved in drugs, or that perhaps this “war” isn’t working out all that well (each arc ends with either a successful arrest, or a pointedly armed perpetrator falling in a hail of gunfire); if anything, the press is depicted as an annoyance, shoving microphones in the face and asking inane questions, always a step behind actual events. And it refuses to consider the resistance growing among Filipinos, folks who have either been directly affected — their friends and loved ones cut down — or have seen what’s going on, and are increasingly speaking out against this so-called “war on drugs.”
Amo is a particularly sharp disappointment considering what Mendoza himself has done before in terms of street-level eyewitnessing. Ma Rosa is, to my mind, a far more honest take on the drug scene, showing us not just the corrupt police practice of “swap heads” (under president Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino’s regime — though still apparently being practiced today) but the drug dealers’ desperation in trying to extricate themselves from under the officers’ clutches.
If I had to pick an exemplary dramatized treatment of the subject I’d point to The Wire — David Simon’s classic series on the Baltimore drug scene that starts with, yes, street-level drug dealing and, yes, features shaky-cam footage and jangling editing. But the series eventually takes on so much more, examining each social institution — labor unions, political institutions, the school system, the press — exposing the flaws in each and pointing out the heroes that keep the whole going despite all the flaws. The Wire is ultimately Dickensian in its scope and ambition, suggesting in its hour-long episodes (as compared to Amo’s brief half-hour squibs) the screwed-up labyrinthine workings of our established social institutions, but also the need to work within their parameters, work within the law when doing our jobs. Where The Wire is an epic mural filled with breathtakingly executed marginalia, Amo in comparison feels like one of those quickie thumbprints on a questionable website, fuzzy and lacking in detail. I was hoping for better from the first-ever Filipino series presented by Netflix, and from a filmmaker whose previous works I admire.