'WATCH LIST' Indie Film Review

Image Credit: Watch List Movie

Director Ben Rekhi’s tense thriller, Watch List, from the Philippines began its virtual US release this month. The movie centers around a mother of three, Maria, deftly portrayed by Alessandra de Rossi. Viewers follow Maria as she tries to investigate the circumstances of her husband’s death only to find herself delving deeper into the country’s war on drugs.

Operation Tokhang

The movie takes place in one of the many slums in present-day Manila, Philippines. President Rodrigo Duterte’s regime has taken a well-documented hardline stance against the illegal drug trade plaguing his country. Though some local communities oppose these measures, the international community as a whole condemns these operations. These operations began in 2017, with the support of the majority of Filipinos. At the time of this 2019 film, 82% still supported these operations.

Operation Tokhang is often described as a local action more in line with Police Community Relations. During these operations, a four-person team hand-selected by the local police chief and dressed in full uniform visits a suspect’s home. They are accompanied by a member of the area’s municipality, known as a barangay, any available human rights advocate, and a religious sect.

The suspected pusher (their term for a dealer) or user is then persuaded to visit their local Barangay Hall to submit to rehabilitation. Any resistance to that initial knock (toktok) and declare (hangyo) results in enhanced enforcement recommendations to the local Drug Enforcement Unit. This escalation could be anything from another visit by the task force, forcible action, or death.

Members of the local Operation Tokhang mission have the names of illegal drug users, pushers, and financers onto a watch list. Once a person’s name is on that list, it is tough to get it removed. Worse still, having a member of the task force arrive at one’s doorstep signals to the suspect’s neighbors that they may be guilty of continued illegal activities.

As Operation Tokhang grew in scope, the discretion of the local officers began to include extrajudicial executions. This was similar to actions in Davao City, where President Duterte served previously as Mayor. Street cops have become judge, jury, and executioner for anyone they catch. Guilty or not. Corruption is rampant, while compassion is virtually non-existent.

Maria’s story

Maria, her husband Arturo, and their three children are visited by members of their local Operation Tokhang team. Very quickly, the audience learns that Maria and her husband were both pushers and users of illegal drugs. They are paraded down the narrow pathways of the slum along with others from the watch list. Onlookers cheer and jeer at them as they pass by. She and her husband submit to their local rehabilitation program which registers them on the watch list as reformed.

Arturo is grateful for his second chance. He does not want to stir up any trouble. Arturo tries desperately to impart to his eldest son, Mark, and nephew, Joel, the lessons of his failures. He tells Mark to make sure he studies hard to have a better life than his father. That night Arturo is found shot to death in the street with a cardboard sign lying near his body. The sign says, “I’m a pusher, don’t be like me.”

Maria tries to learn who may have shot her husband. The police are of no help. Because her husband’s death was on the local news, their inclusion on the watch list is known to any potential employers in the area. She cannot find any work. She is thrown out of her home and finds temporary shelter in an even more destitute section of the slum.

She follows up once again with the police and also adds she is looking for work. The chief makes her an offer she finds unbelievable. She cannot refuse it since it is the only job she has been offered. While she can put food on the table and pay for her children’s education, she is trading her very soul. Throughout the film, viewers get a taste of just how much power these local operation teams have over their citizenry. Maria’s nightmare has only begun.

The film’s subject matter is grounded in a stark reality that many North American audience members may not fully understand. The United States’ war on drugs may seem unfair to many. However, in third world countries, this same war is a matter of literal life and death. Countries like Bangladesh institute a death sentence even for non-violent drug offenses, usually by hanging with at least a trial.

In Duterte’s Philippines, they do not bother with the judiciary at all. President Duterte urges his fellow citizens to take up the cause against those in the illegal drug trade by whatever means necessary. The results of Operation Tokhang have been extrajudicial killings. While condemned by the international and some local communities, this task force is supported by a majority of Filipinos. I applaud this film for bringing the subject matter to light.

Source(s): Statistics supplied by Reuters.com