Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — When she set out to make “Happy Jail,” a five-part documentary that premiered on Netflix this month, filmmaker Michele Josue wanted to highlight, in her words, the resilience and spirit of the inmates inside the Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center (CPDRC) — best known for dancing to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” in a video viewed by millions in 2007, a time when going viral meant much more than it does today.
Josue began working on her project in 2016, just before the national elections, and found the story taking unexpected turns as the new administration took over, a war against drugs was set into motion, and an ex-convict was hired to take charge of the CPDRC. Marco Toral, the new head of the prison, was in fact a former inmate at the facility itself, and his methods of establishing authority could be described as unorthodox and questionable.
“Our cameras were there when CPDRC was suddenly thrust into this new era, and its staff was overwhelmed with an influx of inmates and the pressure of it all,” Josue had said in a statement. “Over the next three years, we witnessed the jail change in meaningful ways.”
Born to parents who immigrated to U.S. from Sagay, Negros Occidental, Josue also saw “Happy Jail” as a chance to reconnect with her Filipino heritage and identity, as well as to bring people together regardless of their differences. But it grew into something bigger, and became a way for her to shed light on the harsher truths of the Philippine justice system.
In January, the New York Times reported on the overcrowding and dehumanizing conditions found in pretrial jails in the Philippines, particularly the Manila City Jail, with as many as 518 inmates packed in a space meant for only 170. While the government recommends one correctional officer for every seven inmates, the ratio at the facility has at one point reached one correctional officer for every 528 inmates.
Because the guards are so outnumbered, officials have had to work with gangs inside the facility to keep the peace and help with resources. Commission on Human Rights Commissioner Leah Armamento is quoted as saying, “When you are detained in Philippine jails, you are being tortured.”
The piece attributes to drug war for congestion in jails, citing that in 2018, the Philippines topped the World Prison Brief’s list of most overcrowded incarceration systems in the world. With 146,302 inmates in jails meant to contain only 20,000, the congestion rate is at an astounding 612 percent.
“Happy Jail” draws the line between the amusement felt when the “Thriller” dance video went viral, the hope and resilience Josue once sought out to highlight, and the corruption and difficulties inmates have to face behind bars in order to survive, providing a humanistic 360-degree view of life inside the CPDRC.
“It definitely was difficult,” Josue tells CNN Philippines Life over email. “We didn’t set out to make a film about the unraveling of a ‘happy’ jail. But given the unbelievable timing of our shoot, that was the story that demanded to be told.” In this interview, she discusses her process and approach to the project, how it changed her perspective as a filmmaker, and how she connected with the story as a Filipino-American. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.
When you started working on “Happy Jail,” what led you to this choice of subject?
We initially set out to tell the story of the dancing inmates. We felt it was such an extraordinary program that hadn’t been explored in-depth before. As a Fil-Am filmmaker who also loves dance, I thought perhaps I would be able to do their story justice.
What did it take for “Happy Jail” to get made? Can you talk about your process and how you approached it with sensitivity and compassion, as well as truthfulness and respect?
In terms of production, we were a very small film crew working with very little resources. But since we wanted to tell the story of the jail in an intimate and humanistic way, keeping a low-profile worked out well for us in that regard. We spent a lot of time inside the jail. We even slept over on a few occasions. We wanted to be completely immersed in the experience and build a strong rapport and trust with all our subjects, as well as the jail community as a whole.
What did your experience teach you personally about the jail and justice systems, human rights, and the sociopolitical state of the Philippines?
An important fact I learned was that most of the inmates inside CPDRC are not yet convicted of their accused crimes. Technically speaking, they are detainees and should not be presumed as hardened criminals, even though it seems that most of society treat them as the former. So we all made sure that was in the forefront of our minds.
In the show, Marco Toral states that “justice delayed is justice denied.” Through Marlon, specifically, we learn about the flawed justice system and how painfully slow it moves. Marlon is representative of the many inmates inside CPDRC who are denied due process and wait years for their day in court.
Did this project change your perspective of and relationship with filmmaking and storytelling? How so?
Yes, filming “Happy Jail” really did affect me. Through the inmates, I saw how powerful hope and faith can be and how important community and connection is to one’s life and, in this case, even survival. That’s a lifelong lesson I will take with me forever. In terms of filmmaking, I’m proud of how layered and emotionally complex the show is and how it implores us to see life through a more empathic, nuanced lens. It’s an honor and a privilege to be able to share these stories, and I don’t take that responsibility lightly.
How do you hope “Happy Jail” affects viewers and, on a larger scale, jail conditions and the lives of inmates?
I think it’s crucial that we re-examine what’s happening in the jails and in the Philippines on a larger scale with more empathy and humanity, and I believe “Happy Jail” challenges us to do just that.
It's been said that it's their dancing that makes CPDRC inmates unique. Would you say that the docu-series reveals more things that make them and their stories stand out and give them the ability to connect with people?
Yes, the dancing is an important part of the CPDRC inmates’ story, but it’s not the only part. Our series spends a lot of time learning about their lives, how they came to CPDRC, how they survive, and what their hopes are for the future. We take the time to learn about them as actual human beings, not just as inmates or dancers. Our show hopefully gives people an opportunity to empathize and connect with the inmates in a meaningful way.
When it went viral, the video of CPDRC inmates dancing to “Thriller” held national attention in the Philippines because they were from home, one of our own, while internationally it was more about cultural differences, literally making the dancing a tourist attraction. As a Filipino-American, what was your initial reaction to it? How did this project and getting to know these people help you reconnect with the Filipino part of your identity?
For me personally, I was immediately intrigued and touched by it. I had so many questions, but at the same time, being Filipino-American and having inherited that love of art and performance, I felt an intrinsic understanding that this was something that could happen only in the Philippines. Filipinos are, by and large, incredibly joyful and creative, and these traits can flourish even in the most dire circumstances. In a way, dance, music, and self-expression is the lifeblood of these inmates, and as an artist, on a certain level, I can understand that.