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In Duterte’s War on Drugs, Where Do All the Bodies Go?

Jan 29, 2020 | 831 videos
Video by Anders Palm Olesen and Simone Gottschau

Editor’s Note: This film contains some graphic imagery.

During his campaign for the Philippine presidency in 2016, Rodrigo Duterte ran on a platform of a “relentless” war on drugs that promised to purge the country of narcotics-related violence. Once in office, Duterte encouraged vigilante death squads and police task forces to commit extrajudicial murders of suspected drug users and dealers. In his first month, nearly 600 people were killed with impunity.

Now Duterte has passed the halfway point of his six-year presidency, and his crackdown is far from over. The death toll has risen to 12,000, although unofficial estimates are higher. The urban poor are the main targets of these killings; any young person in a shantytown can be seen as a suspected drug addict. Police routinely execute unarmed suspects and often plant evidence. Citizens randomly assassinate neighbors. Many victims’ bodies are found on the sidewalk, bathed in blood.

Where these bodies are taken is the subject of Anders Palm Olesen and Simone Gottschau’s short documentary, Manila High. Set in the Pasay City Cemetery, a new public grave complex that’s being built to meet the needs of the rising body count, the film focuses on young caretakers who live and work on the premises. This is ground zero of the drug war; the resident gravediggers are poor, and they live in fear of ending up the next victim of a random killing.

“At the cemetery, we found a micro-universe from where another layer of the war on drugs could be told,” Olesen told me. “We found absurdity in the construction of a government-funded burial complex [where] caretakers themselves are afraid of ending up in the very graves they were building.”

While filming, the omnipresence of death was jarring to the directors. “The opening scene at the morgue was something you can’t really prepare yourself for beforehand,” Gottschau told me.

In Manila, one of the places hit hardest by the crackdown, Olesen and Gottschau spoke with citizens who publicly supported it. A 2019 survey found that 82 percent of adult Filipinos were satisfied with the administration’s campaign against illegal drugs.

“From the very beginning, it was clear to us that this was more a war on the poor than anything else,” said Olesen. “The scaremongering has the political effect of tightening Duterte’s grip on power.”

“What we witnessed,” he continued, “seemed no different from the alienating tactics of the 20th century’s totalitarian dictators remodeled on a 21st-century blueprint. The politics of dividing the people between a ‘them’ versus ‘us’ is on the rise all over the world.”

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Author: Emily Buder

About This Series

A showcase of cinematic short documentary films, curated by The Atlantic.