“When I smoke meth, I feel nothing when I kill.” The irony is thick as a man paid to execute drug users exhales a cloud of shabu smoke in The Nightcrawlers. The National Geographic documentary, which last week won a special jury prize for courageous filmmaking at the Hamptons International Film Festival and next month will play at DOC NYC, is named after the photojournalists who’ve documented thousands of extrajudicial killings in the Philippines, said to be ordered by police at the encouragement of strongman president Roberto Duterte. The film, directed by Alexander A. Mora, follows these photographers while also riding along with the masked vigilantes who brazenly gun down users and pushers in the streets of Manila.
The Nightcrawlers picks up where another just-released documentary, On the President’s Orders, leaves off. That film, which premiered on Frontline earlier this month and can be watched online, follows the police of Manila’s Caloocan district in 2017 and 2018 as they try to fight a supposedly kinder, gentler war on drugs. Directors Olivier Sarbil and James Jones film police chief Jemar Modequillo as he enacts what he says are Duterte’s orders to make drug policing “less bloody but [with] more accomplishments.” (In practice, this means throwing a man into a horrifically overcrowded prison cell for carrying less than 10 ounces of marijuana; he’s one of 100,000 arrested during Duterte’s drug war.) The Good Cop act proves short-lived, however, when Duterte decides drug use is back on the rise and orders a renewed crackdown. We see chilling footage of two masked motorcycle riders shooting a pedicab driver in the head in broad daylight. The victim’s son, one of the few bystanders who rushes to his aid, claims his father had stopped using drugs when Duterte came to power, but it made no difference.
Amidst international condemnation, Duterte has repeatedly denied responsibility for the death squads. But he has also said he would be “happy to slaughter” three million drug dealers a la Hitler slaughtering Jews, and last year he confessed during a speech: “My only sin is the extrajudicial killings.”
Authorities interviewed in the Frontline documentary are similarly coy when asked whether they’re the ones carrying out the executions. “Are we going to kill [drug offenders]? No,” Modequillo tells his officers. “They are human beings. But if they are stubborn, then we will kill them,” he finishes with a laugh. A SWAT commander can’t keep from grinning as he says he doesn’t know who is responsible for the killings. Then, off-camera, he confesses that he has heard from colleagues that the drive-bys are the work of fellow cops. (As a result of such revelations, the International Criminal Court is using the film as evidence in their investigation of the killings.)
The masked, anonymous contract killers in The Nightcrawlers are a bit more forthcoming. One of them freely admits he was hired by police. A vigilante tells us about the time his posse accidentally killed an innocent man and the police helped out by planting guns and drugs on him. Arrests are sometimes made, but we’re told they’re just for show, and the suspects are routinely let free once the cameras stop rolling. “The news, it’s all lies,” says one of the vigilantes.
It’s uncertain how many of these vigilantes are roaming the streets of the Philippines, and how many extrajudicial killings have occurred. One man tells us he has personally killed over 50 people; when he finds himself feeling sorry for the children of his prey, he reminds himself that the drug users are guilty. One of the film’s sources estimates there are 6,000 killers like him. In July, the Philippine government said that just over 5,500 “drug personalities” had been killed in three years, but at least one fact-checking non-profit puts the number at well over 20,000.
One of those demanding accountability is Raffy Lerma, a longtime photographer for the Philippine Daily Inquirer who spends his nights holed up with fellow hardened photojournalists, waiting for the inevitable calls to come in. To get a sense of just how busy he is on a given night, you need only read a New York Times photographer’s account of documenting 57 homicides in 35 days. It contains chilling euphemisms like “riding in tandem” (the preferred method of approaching a drug suspect on a motorcycle, shooting him in the middle of the street, and riding off) and “nanlaban” (a phrase meaning “he fought it out,” used by police to justify killing suspects who supposedly resisted arrest).
Lerma and his fellow nightcrawlers do their best to serve as the conscience of a nation. Their photos are gut-wrenching (though not quite as disturbing as the documentary’s hidden camera footage of hit men trailing their target in a restaurant; at the last moment, they decide not to kill him because there are too many children around.) In one of the film’s most harrowing scenes, a woman weeps hysterically over the corpse of her brother, left in the street with a cardboard sign reading “Drug pusher- don’t copy me.” Photos of the bloody crime scenes are heartbreaking, but they can only do so much to sway public opinion. After Lerma’s photo of a woman cradling her husband went viral in 2016 due to its resemblance to Michelangelo’s “Pieta,” Duterte mocked it, calling it “overly dramatic.” His drug war retains an 82% approval rating among Filipinos.
Clearly, there’s a prevailing opinion in the Philippines, which in 2012 was found to have the highest rate of meth use in East Asia, that drug users and pushers— which Duterte sees as one in the same— are a social scourge who have it coming to them. A female vigilante says she was raped by a drug user; a tour guide who, unbeknownst to his wife and children, moonlights as a contract killer, says that his cousin was killed by an addict. Even our own president has congratulated Duterte for doing “an unbelievable job on the drug problem.” But Duterte also has his detractors in Manila, as protest footage shows. A man whose son was the victim of an extrajudicial killing says the worst part of dealing with it is his regret that he voted for Duterte.
With concerns about Duterte’s health mounting and the president saying he’s “ready to go” from office in part because of his failure to squash the drug problem, it appears that he’s hoping to clear the way for the son of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, Bongbong, to take over for him. (Bongbong failed in his campaign for vice president, but still hopes to unseat his opponent via a fraud complaint.) Which means that if you watch The Nightcrawlers when it plays at DOC NYC on Nov. 8, you should also watch The Kingmaker, playing at the festival Nov. 6 and 7. (Our story about Lauren Greenfield’s new documentary about Bongbong’s run for vice presidency can be found here.) The takeaway from watching all three of these films: It is not a happy time for democracy in the Philippines.