‘Manila Death Squad’ director on making politically-charged cinema in the time of Duterte and Trump

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The short film “Manila Death Squad” is a thriller that wastes no time, rushing through moral debates, Philippine and American history, and references to drug-related killings all through the lens of a frenzied drinking game. Screencap from DEAN COLIN MARCIAL/VIMEO

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — A journalist walks into a bar and goes up to a vigilante death squad for a game of King’s Cup.

So begins Dean Colin Marcial’s frenzied, panic-propelled 13-minute short film “Manila Death Squad” starring Sid Lucero and Annicka Dolonius. It’s a thriller that wastes no time, rushing through moral debates, Philippine and American history, and references to drug-related killings all through the lens of a frenzied drinking game.

Marcial shot “Manila Death Squad” in 2016, and it’s proven to be eerily prescient of the extrajudicial violence in the last two years of the Duterte administration. The film’s fevered conversations and its curveball in the final minute make for a more potent viewing now than ever.

The film, which has screened at a handful of festivals from Fantastic Fest to Slamdance to the Lago Film Festival, also holds the distinction of being the first Filipino narrative short film to make it to Vimeo’s Staff Picks.

CNN Philippines Life talks to Marcial about “Manila Death Squad,” inciting trolls and the power of cinema to question viewers’ politics.

What led to you telling this particular story about a Manila death squad?

I visited my grandfather in Mindanao right after I graduated from college — that’s when I learned about the Davao Death Squad, and the story stuck with me since 2011. I wrote this screenplay in 2015 with my co-writer Kent Szlauderbach and returned to the Philippines to make films — this was months before Duterte even announced his intentions to run.

Back then I considered this a science fiction movie, playing as 15 minutes into the future of what was already happening: neocons adopting punk rock attitudes and the neoliberals exploiting them for a story, hipster authoritarianism and rampant conspiracy theories. By the time we finished a rough cut in May 2016 the film basically came true and Duterte was President: I remember the day we screened it, two or three alleged drug suspects were killed, the headline read “Reign of Terror.”

Manila Death Squad-06-28 at 1.16.24 PM.png The short has been described as a “lurid funhouse mirror” and "an electric love letter to Tarantino with a political twist." Screencap from DEAN COLIN MARCIAL/VIMEO

The film has some interesting interplay between Filipino characters and very American visual tropes, then historical references from both countries. Was there anything you wanted to put across with that sort of interplay?

I can’t lay claim to originating a Filipino story — I was born there, but I was raised in the States. At the same time, I don’t think it’s an American story either. I’m fascinated with the tension in between, and this movie being neither here nor there, like a red-headed bastard stepchild of postcolonialism.

One of my friends told me that the Philippines was a testing ground for America: everything — elections, socio-economic ideas and development — happens in the Islands first. That feeling — that this is where the bleeding edge is — was something I wanted to capture tonally and visually, in the language of Hollywood films, Facebook videos, and the intertwined histories of both countries.

It’s weird, most people in America have never even heard of the Philippines but so many Filipinos are plugged into U.S. culture and can speak with perfect [American] accents. There are so many affinities and similarities, partially as a result of decades of colonization — and I'm trying to build a bridge between the two cultures, instead of the current one way street and the occasional distant window we Americans usually view Asia through.

Manila Death Squad-06-28 at 1.18.30 PM.png "From the very get-go, we wanted Olivia [played by Annicka Dolonius] to have these ambiguous intentions," says director Dean Colin Marcial. "You don’t know whether she’s an amateur or a hustler, if she’s doing this for the scoop or because she actually cares." Screencap from DEAN COLIN MARCIAL/VIMEO

Apart from that, Olivia (Annicka Dolonius' character) is an American journalist in Manila, trying to get a story on the death squad. She also comes to serve as the audience's eyes through the whole thing. What choices did you make in the process of developing her character?

Olivia as a character is as close as I’ve come to writing myself into the script — I think reporting and filmmaking are very similar processes. My sister Raquel Lily, who’s a musician in her own right, inspired me to write more female leads and I cribbed a lot of character from my then-girlfriend Sigrid, who’s a writer and journalist in Copenhagen.

But it was really in casting Annicka Dolonius where Olivia leaped off the page and into real life. I initially thought of a more suspicious, out-of-place character — what Western trope of a stranger coming into town — but Annicka brought this warmth and familiarity that made you feel like you know this girl. She might be a friend of yours, and there she is getting into trouble with vigilantes. I rewrote the script to fit her and Sid Lucero more and that’s the joy of working with these talented people, they really surprise you with their choices.

From the very get-go, we wanted Olivia to have these ambiguous intentions. You don’t know whether she’s an amateur or a hustler, if she’s doing this for the scoop or because she actually cares. She’s like a ghost who can hold her alcohol, and Annicka will definitely drink you under the table.

The King's Cup game is used as an expository device throughout and it's really fascinating. Why did you decide to use a drinking game to propel your story forward?

We needed to keep the conversation going, and going fast. We also wanted to talk about these heavy subjects through a side door, and framing them as trivia was a really effective way of zooming through the politics. Have you ever recorded you and your friends getting drunk and talking about Trump? It gets really cringe-y after three minutes.

Everything in the editing was about overload. I took a lot of inspiration from Facebook content, cable T.V., and commercials and I tried to keep ramping up and intensifying the stakes to keep you watching, and the drinking game was a good way to keep the madness structured. King’s Cup also has a time bomb inherently built into it — someone will drink the ass cup at the end. Read into that how you will.

You mentioned that the film is more of “an acid trip and a Rorschach test” for the audience. Have any particular reactions and readings stood out for you?

One of the pro-Duterte folks I screened it to read it as the loop-de-loop of American imperialism: They exploit and plunder and kill, leave an undemocratic power vacuum of violence, to be filled with violent populists, and then condemn them to justify an intervention and start the whole thing over again, making gwap along the way. A couple of people on Twitter screencapped the conversation between Rufio and Olivia about not trusting reports, almost presenting it like a political meme. I've heard the phrase “black propaganda” a few times in regards to the movie, and someone even quoted Marx to back up that point.

There’s a lot in there. I tried to layer everything about four or five times over — the imagery, the sound, the context, media and meta references. [Jason Sondhi of] Short of the Week I think is probably the closest read to mine, and they called it a “lurid funhouse mirror” — you stare into it and it comes back distorted and grotesque, but it’s still you.

I'm sure it's been read by some as anti-Duterte work. Has it attracted that sort of negative attention from Duterte supporters?

Maybe six hours after the Vice article went up someone already started trolling the comments page, and then Flippinflips drank a whole bunch of haterade and put up a tribute post about my total failure as a human being, and how the target audience for this was a bunch of morons. Actually, it made a really great pullquote.

It attracted a lot of attention from his followers and so I kept getting notifications about people telling me to go fuck myself or I should be imprisoned or sued. My favorite one was referring to the Tarantino comparison the article made, and they said “more like Tarantado-inspired.” That one was pretty good.

MDS3.png One of the pullquotes from a Facebook comment about the film and Dean Colin Marcial. Photo courtesy of DEAN COLIN MARCIAL

Did you expect that sort of reaction? Was it something you wanted to incite, aside from telling the story of the film?

I tried to be very careful about how to present the politics cinematically. I don’t want to shove my opinions down your throat; I’m more interested in the gray areas as a filmmaker even if I'm outspoken personally. I know how I feel and you know how you feel, so let’s keep asking questions.

One of the biggest challenges late in the game was conveying the opening titles. With so many disparate numbers floating around, how do you give credence to the death toll? In the end, what was “fair” in the film's universe was to go with the PDEA’s December 2017 report of 20,000 deaths (less than 4,000 in PNP operations, over 16,000 homicides under investigation) filed under “Fighting Illegal Drugs.” It seemed to reflect everyone else’s numbers in some way.

I suspect a lot of these folks haven’t watched the film and are just trash-talking it based on the media coverage. I really do want to reach across the aisle of my own politics and invite other interpretations of the film, but maybe that’s a first-term Obama kind of idealism.

Are there any other plans for the film moving forward, or for similar projects?

I’m working on something similar though kind of in a very different direction, a feature-length film called “The Green Guerrillas,” which is kind of like a John Hughes movie about eco-terrorists. Right now I’m editing a short film based on that with some folks from “Death Squad,” but in a totally alternate universe. For starters, Annicka & Sid play a couple so it’ll legit be the hugot “Apocalypse Child” reunion you wanted.  

I developed “Manila Death Squad” as a standalone piece, though people do keep asking me if it’s the first part of a feature. But for real, I have no idea what happens after [the characters] leave. Maybe you do.

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Watch “Manila Death Squad” here.