Human Rights Watch Festival 2020: Our Review Of ‘On The President’s Orders’

Human Rights Watch Festival 2020: Our Review Of ‘On The President’s Orders’

The Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte has declared a war on drugs. It’s one that filmmakers James Jones and Olivier Sarbil depict on their documentary On the President’s Orders. “We need to put an end to his wrongdoing,” says Captain Will Cabrales of the Caloocan Police about an alleged drug dealer.

Cabrales looks outside a window with metal bars. This beautiful shot is one of many in this  sleek movie. But it doesn’t gain him more sympathy with an audience that dislikes this war. It’s obvious to both the film and us that Cabrales is a pawn in this war.

Jones and Sabril give ample time to both Cabrales and his boss Jemar Modequillo as well the local media coverage of their extrajudicial killings. The film captures these outlets calling the police’s victims as humble shop keepers. Then it tells us that the cops accuse them of selling drugs on the side.

This is the doc’s way of giving a voice to these victims, but I also sense an eagerness to show their bodies in gurneys. Duterte is a sick man. In order to depict his sadism, we, as well as the filmmakers we watch, shouldn’t indulge his overt sadism.

Thankfully, Sarbil and Jones discover other, slightly better ways to depict the people who Duterte is targeting. One of them is Axel Martinez, getting a tattoo. Maybe it’s to show that he’s a leader of a local gang he calls M-Town, or maybe it’s to commemorate his father, Arnold, a tricycle driver.

Axel retells his Arnold’s death with harrowing numbness, an extrajudicial killing that the police didn’t bother to investigate. Arnold didn’t get to endure the due process that accused criminals like him would get had he committed crimes here. But his story reminds us that that can happen anywhere.

For more information on On The President’s Orders go to


  • Release Date: 1/31/2020
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While Paolo Kagaoan is not taking long walks in shrubbed areas, he occasionally watches movies and write about them. His credentials are as follows: he has a double major in English and Art History. This means that, for example, he will gush at the art direction in the Amityville house and will want to live there, which is a terrible idea because that house has ghosts. Follow him @paolokagaoan on Instagram but not while you're working.
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