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James Jones and Olivier Sarbil: How We Made ‘On the President’s Orders’

Hot on the heels of their Emmy award-winning documentary Mosul, James Jones and Olivier Sarbil have delivered another masterful foray into the dark side of human behaviour. On the President’s Orders takes viewers to the Philippines where President Duterte’s brutal war on drugs has led police to murder thousands of drug users and dealers. Arriving to embed themselves with a police force in Caloocan just as Duterte pledges a killing moratorium driving the violence underground, Jones and Sarbil’s film is an astonishingly framed narrative which manages to tell a story full of menace and intrigue. In the lead up to their festival run, before it airs on PBS, BBC Storyville and Arte France, I sat down with the filmmaking partners to discuss how they made it. This has been condensed for length and clarity:

Carol Nahra: Can you tell me how you came to this story?

James Jones: Yes, we were finishing Mosul together and thinking what story we wanted to do and which subject might play to our strengths. I think we had both been aware of the mass executions in the Phillipines. We’d seen some great photojournalism. Basically we went out to Manila to try to get access to the cops. A lot of the coverage had been quite formulaic – dead bodies in the street and sobbing families. We didn’t really get under the skin of it, understand who was doing the killing, the rationale behind the murder. We wanted to see it from the police’s perspective – not sympathising with it but understanding how they could justify this mass murder. And so we showed up in Caloocan which is the hot spot. And Duterte the President had had to basically pause the drugs war and say ‘we’re going to clean it up’. So we actually had very little faith that they were going to give us access. We’d come halfway across the world – they would guess why we were choosing them. But we were lucky, we met the police chief, who quite liked the attention. And there was a kind of push from above to show that they had changed – the drugs war was going to be cleaner. So we just had full access and spent the next six months going back and forth.

Olivier Sarbil: We didn’t go through the official media centre for the police. We tried to get the access directly with the commander because we knew that if we had something too official obviously we would be on the radar of the police; obviously it would be more difficult.

JJ: It was great on the one hand because we had no official oversight. We were able to do whatever we wanted. But there was also this worry that because we had nothing on paper he could just wake up one morning and get fed up with us and kick us out.

CN: How would you define what plays to your strengths?

JJ: I’ve done a film about police shooting in America. So journalistically I was drawn to it and Olivier was drawn to it. And I think in terms of the type of filming Olivier had done in Mosul in terms of getting access to a group of men, it felt like a combination of the two of us. We could win their trust. We could get access that no one had got before. And Olivier would shoot it in a way that was incredibly cinematic. So it felt like on one level an important story – an injustice that we wanted to expose – but also filmically it was set up for film noirish atmospheric: quite dark and beautiful images.

CN: That of course is what is really striking and will gain some attention. How did you go about planning the look of the film?

OS: It’s a story filled with violence and darkness. For the film, we went for carefully composed shots. We wanted to create a style with a dramatic mood and an emotional connection with the city to enhance our characters’ feelings and the story.

CN: You had to build this picture of menace. Did you discuss how you were going to do this as you were shooting?

OS: First we had the shooting recce. We discovered the country and all the lighting and how we would be able to visually tell the story. So we had a pretty clear idea of what will work and how we will make it cinematically. And actually on a daily basis we were working and trying to edit short sequences to see how it works. So as soon as we decided to have a style for the film – the look – we really kept to it.

JJ: We wanted actuality, but actually the thing that was happening while we were there was the killing was going underground. Had we gone six months to a year earlier, there would have been more operations where they just bust into slums in uniform and shot people. Whereas now they were being a bit smarter and it was vigilantes or plainclothes off duty cops executing people on a motorbike. So the challenge was to kind of capture the fact that people thought the police were behind it – and even the cops privately were admitting to us that they were behind it. There were these clues along the way but it was a balance of not damning them by innuendo but making it feel solid that you knew that these guys were the killers.

OS: We didn’t want also to just be focused – if we had the chance to have more actuality with the police we would have followed them. But at the same time we didn’t want to make the film running after the police. We wanted to spend six months with the cops plus going underground, behind the scenes of the killing, and to have a chance to know the people a little bit better.

“They didn’t fully wrap their heads around what a documentary is, and I think were probably surprised we kept coming back and back and back.”

James Jones

CN: So you were there off and on for six months. How did you plan that schedule?

JJ: We had twelve weeks on the ground, which is a good amount of time. And Olivier doesn’t shoot very much in a day. Visually it’s all very well covered but he’s not someone who just rolls for three hours. So twelve weeks on the ground. Four trips of three weeks. So for the first three trips filming almost entirely with the police and a bit with the funeral parlour director. And then on the last near the end of the penultimate trip we started filming with Axel and the family in the slums.

OS: It was a bit risky to suddenly leave the cops and go to the slums. We were quite conspicuous.

CN: What did everyone make of you?

JJ: They quite liked Olivier and were impressed by his military background and the fact that he had been in Mosul. They didn’t fully wrap their heads around what a documentary is, and I think were probably surprised we kept coming back and back and back. They thought we were more of a news crew but we kept coming back and we’d want to film stuff that to them felt quite inconsequential, which is often the way with documentaries.

CN: Was it just the two of you?

JJ: And local fixers. I was doing sound; Olivier was shooting. Which worked, was a perfect set up for the environment. We would put a radio mic on our main characters and a boom on a stick. In the slums we weren’t out on the streets with our characters that much. We did drone footage later on – a note from one of our commissioners was they wanted to get a sense of the space. With our characters in the slums we mainly filmed inside their flats. And we tried to get in and out as unobtrusively as possible. And the kit would be hidden in bags and we would dash quite quickly.

OS: One of the reasons the filming was stressful was by definition you might think the police were following where we were going.

CN: You were again working in a language not your own, although lots of people do speak English in the Philippines. But there were nonetheless some revelations in what they were saying that I assume you found out back in the edit?

JJ: It was kind of ideal in a way that we could communicate with them well enough in English. So we could establish a proper relationship and give instructions or get information. But because they knew that we didn’t understand Tagalong, they would be quite indiscreet. And say things like ‘I asked the boss if we could go overboard, and he said no’, ie we are not allowed to kill this one. Or ‘the killings have caught up with us sir’, or ‘there are things we should talk about later’. So those little moments which as you say when we are filming we have no idea about but when we get the transcript back realise it’s gold and that there’s something else going on.

OS: Because they got so used to seeing us in the station – at some point we could just walk in and walk out, sit on the sofa, spend the day in the police station, going from one building to another, and no one would ask the question: what are we doing there? We built that trust with the police officers, and sometimes they’d forget that we were there. That’s the magic in observational documentary.

On the President’s Orders, a Mongoose Pictures production, has its North American premiere at Hot Docs in Toronto, Canada on Saturday, 27 April.

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