Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — In 2019, James Cuenca starred in what was then promoted as “the wokest film of the year,” a two-and-a-half-hour long action-thriller titled “KontrAdiksyon.” In it, he played Alexis, an anti-drug war activist who abandons his advocacy after a gang of masked meth addicts break into his comfortable middle-class home, rape his wife, and kill his family. Alexis begins to work with the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) in support of Oplan Tokhang. After getting fired, he becomes a vigilante and kills several drug users. The big plot twist comes when a congressman who opposes extrajudicial killings is exposed as the head of a massive drug cartel. His plan is to funnel drugs into government-funded rehab centers (one of which is lavishly shown) so that detainees attack PDEA agents, leaving them with no choice but to shoot. The movie takes glee in implicating the political opposition in this grand conspiracy, and all throughout, every government talking point on the drug war is upheld.
Oggs Cruz, a film critic for Rappler, called “KontrAdiksyon” “blatant propaganda.” Palanca Award-winning writer Njel De Mesa, who wrote and directed the movie, is a public supporter of Rodrigo Duterte, and created online videos to bolster his 2016 campaign. After Duterte’s election, De Mesa was appointed to the board of directors at the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board (MTRCB). When “KontrAdiksyon” was released, the president gave a speech at the premiere (“I don't give a shit about human rights,” he said.) De Mesa denied that his movie was propaganda: “I did this project not because I needed the money but because I wanted to move people and I want people to open their hearts and understand each other’s point of view.”
“KontrAdiksyon” grossed ₱300,000 on its first day, prompting several theaters to pull it out. De Mesa’s movie had high production value, a plot tailor-made for drug war hawks, and an endorsement from the president. Still, the political base it pandered to never fully materialized.
While the Duterte era has certainly made its mark on cinema, with several films and documentaries examining the drug war’s adverse effects on the Filipino poor, a small group of movies also exists in contrast to them, attempting to justify Oplan Tokhang as a necessary crackdown. But, like “KontrAdiksyon,” none of them have been successful financially or critically. And it’s mostly because none of them are good.
The 2017 film “Kamandag ng Droga,” for instance, is not so much a movie as it is a series of dismal just-say-no sketches, spliced together to chaotic effect. A zombie-like drug user climbs up a telephone pole and dies of electrocution. Teenagers take drugs at a concert and die. The singer at the concert, dejected at having had her spotlight stolen, gets depressed and takes drugs. She dies too. Christopher De Leon plays a father who incessantly asks his son whether he might be on drugs. The son is not on drugs, but is so saddened by his father’s lack of faith in him that he breaks down and takes drugs (Christopher De Leon is later revealed to be on drugs.) The son enters a coma. With all hope lost, his mother, Lorna Tolentino, euthanizes him by removing his oxygen mask, which isn’t how euthanasia happens.
At one point, Mocha Uson, who does not play herself, appears. Her brother is on drugs. She gets help from Dante L.A. Jimenez, the president of Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption (VACC), who does play himself. After reassuring her, he turns directly to the camera and talks to the audience about VACC’s services. Duterte comes out to give a speech, urging the public to report drug users so that they can be shot by the police (“Or do it yourself if you have the gun. You have my support.”) Persida Acosta and Senator Koko Pimentel also make cameos. “This movie is not backed by Duterte,” said Peach Caparas, the associate director, in a promotional interview with the government-owned People’s Television Network. “Kamandag” had a ₱100,000 opening.
In another 2017 movie, “DAD: Durugin ang Droga,” Allen Dizon plays a father whose drug addiction fractures his family, sending his wife and son on their own respective roads to vice. The movie uses this scenario not to provoke a meaningful discussion on substance abuse, but to impart a flimsy legitimacy to what Duterte has often framed as a crusade against the collapse of the Filipino family.
But none of that really matters, because like its fellow not-propaganda flops, “DAD”’s political messaging is largely sidelined by its inability to be a good movie. There are several glaring blunders in production: out-of-focus camerawork, shoddy sound, and some very jarring creative choices. “The film does have the greatest flashback of all time,” tweeted the film critic Philbert Dy. “Black and white, with all the actors playing the same characters, 20 years younger [...] Rey Abellana is wearing a cap with ‘1996’ on it, so we know what year it is.” In one scene, Dizon’s character hooks up with a woman in his car. The next day, the woman has departed, but her dress is still in the car. “DAD”’s final scene, its literal ending, is a clip of Duterte saying “My God, I hate drugs.” I have not been able to find anything about how much this movie grossed.
In an email interview, Dy talked to me about the failure of these movies in appealing even to Duterte’s base. “Movies are a business, and they don’t really seem to be the best way to get a message out now,” he wrote. “There’s just too much competition, and no one's going to sit through a cheap-looking flick with the title ‘DAD: Durugin ang Droga’ when they could be watching the new Avengers movie. And they’re also all laughably bad. Good films have a hard enough time getting word-of-mouth. Bad films like these have zero chance of capturing the public imagination.”
If there’s one filmmaker who’s come close to giving his pro-drug war projects a patina of seriousness, it’s Brilliante Mendoza, who has directed two of the president’s State of the Nation Addresses (SONA). Mendoza’s technical skill as a director, as well as his access to production funding, lend his movies a sort of aesthetic gravity, even though his drug war plotlines are almost completely devoid of nuance. His series “Amo,” which became the first Filipino show to be picked up by Netflix, is about a drug-dealing teenager named Joseph, though Mendoza mostly uses him as an excuse to render the ugliness of crime. In “Amo,” corruption within the police system is acknowledged; Derek Ramsay plays Joseph’s uncle, a dirty cop. But the police force at large is mostly depicted as a fair, merciful entity, with many drug pushers walking away unscathed.
Mendoza has also directed a full-length movie, “Alpha: The Right to Kill,” which also stars Allen Dizon. Like “Amo,” it examines police corruption only as a systemic anomaly, not as a feature of an innately broken institution. Extrajudicial killings are also upheld as a valid form of law enforcement. As Dy pointed out, “Alpha” “makes it very clear that everyone who is killed was wielding a gun and threatening the lives of policemen.”
For Cruz, the Rappler film critic, the apparent sobriety of Mendoza’s camera is also what makes his work so insidious. “[Mendoza,] whose documentary-style of filmmaking has been lauded in various circles as reflective of reality, is using the same style in a depiction of a society that favors Duterte's anti-drug war,” he told me in an email. “Note that Mendoza's films are never blatant like the rest of the B-flicks that have come out of the propaganda machine. Its politics is reflected by the decision the director has made to create a Philippine society that is consumed by narcotics in a style that apes journalism.”
In 2018, just before “Amo” was released, a Change.org petition was started by Luzviminda Siapo, a woman whose 19-year-old son was killed by unidentified gunmen after a neighbor tagged him as a drug dealer. In the petition, Siapo urged Netflix to cancel the show. Netflix refused. “Netflix offers a diverse choice for consumers to decide on what, where and when they want to watch,” a rep for the company told BuzzFeed. "We understand that viewers may have opposing opinions but leave it to them to decide.” Netflix doesn’t share view counts for its shows, so there’s no way of knowing how many people watched “Amo.” Nevertheless, it’s been consistently criticized for its poor pacing, the flatness of its characters, and its skewed depiction of the drug war.
“Alpha” didn't do so well either. Though Mendoza’s films have always fared better as festival contenders than as commercial prospects, “Alpha” only had an international gross of $2,632 according to IMDB, a sharp decrease from Mendoza’s previous film, “Ma’ Rosa,” which grossed $88,390.
If propaganda’s success rests on the impact of its reception, then it is true that none of these projects were good at being propaganda. But at the same time, it would be a mistake to read their failure as indicative of a disapproving public. Pro-drug war rhetoric continues to be propagated through much more effective means: Facebook trolls, fake news, lopsided police reports. Duterte’s base may not have been able to reinforce the government’s narratives cinematically, but, box office hits or none, those same narratives continue to hold sway over Filipinos, destroying real lives as a result. We cannot forget that Oplan Tokhang was the platform that put the president in office. Duterte promised the people action, he cast himself as their hero, and he thrilled voters with visions of state-sanctioned murder. That movie sold.