You are currently using an unsupported web browser. For the best experience using the Talent Manager website please consider upgrading your browser.

I was brought up a proud American with all the privileges refugee parents working multiple jobs could provide. Hand on heart, pledging allegiance to the flag, Big Bopper magazines and baseball. So American, I refused to speak my native Tagalog and cauterised myself from anything to do with Filipino-ness.

One summer, I was swimming in loss. My mom had died and I just miscarried a daughter. My partner would later leave for a woman thirty-four years his younger. I decided then to tackle the Filipino identity I'd been running away from and the politics that carry it.
I needed to tell the story of President Rodrigo Duterte's war on drugs through Filipino eyes. It's nothing more than a war on the poor started by people swaddled in class privilege. A governor's son, Duterte was elected on a promise to 'exterminate' drug dealers and users - those who use "shabu" (crystal meth).
His solution was to authorise the police and their agents to kill them. People lived in fear of a knock on their door or two people riding in tandem on a motorcycle. Police have acknowledged around 5,000 people have been killed in this way since 2016, but over 24,000 people are "deaths under investigation". Around 33 people join their ranks every day.
I wanted to find an undertaker, death's doorkeeper, who had a class and views different from my own to challenge to my preconceptions and ego. I immersed myself in a history I'd only used as social currency. I stopped being an ingrate and got angry.
Photojournalist Ezra Acayan introduced me to Orly Fernandez. Pro-Marcos, pro-Duterte, the kind of dark disposition that comes from a man who lives at and runs a 24-hour funeral home in one of Manila's poorest neighbourhoods. He had hats, he had contradiction, his landlady was building a shawarma shop next door to the morgue.
He opened his life and work to us. He tipped us off about a police operation one night - the police phoned and told Orly to get a some body bags ready. We waited. Nothing happened. We left. Orly saw us off with "Happy? You saved someone's life. They'll get them when you've gone." We have no way of proving this, but a few bodies came in over the next day or so.

Anthony was one such body. Born in the slums, he grew up aspiration-rich and cash-poor. His face was pressed to the shopfront of life, always watching but never part of it. One day, he stepped out into Manila’s streets and never came home.

We met his mother and siblings as they came in to Orly’s.

“Why are you letting us tell your story?” I asked.
“We've lost our most precious thing. We have nothing left to lose.”

Theirs was an unusual family. More common were those who feared retribution and further killings. Threats were issued and often executed. If we weren’t being thrown out of wakes and funerals, we were given misinformation or nothing at all.

Making this film is an attempt to exorcise the privilege, the entitlement and the knowledge that I have a protection I cannot share with the people I make films about. It's an attempt to wake the world up to a situation that is as raw as it is unjust and the immediacy of that injustice. It's a thank you to those who have gone before to teach that no-one should be diminished or forgotten.

Watch the Grierson Awards 2020 live - 7pm, Thurs 12th November - Register here

Need Help?