Set in one of the world’s most dangerous cities, To Live and Die in Manila gives a vital voice to the musicians putting their life on the line for their right to showcase creativity that their country associates with drug crimes punishable by death.
We caught up with Angela Stephenson, the director behind To Live and Die in Manila (which you can watch free below), Boiler Room’s new short documentary on President Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal authoritarianism and extra-judicial killings in the Philippines and the artists who oppose it using their creative output.
Since becoming president of the Philippines in 2016, Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs has caused widespread fear and devastation across Manila. Set in one of the world’s most dangerous cities, To Live and Die in Manila gives a vital voice to the musicians putting their life on the line for their right to showcase creativity that their country associates with drug crimes punishable by death.
After coming to power with an anti-crime campaign that pledged to slaughter thousands in a national crackdown (where he also compared himself to Hitler), Duterte and his sanction on extrajudicial killings raised the alarm of global human rights watchdogs in 2016. Two years on, its death toll is reportedly over 20,000, with DIY executions committed by police and citizens alike.
The targets of Duterte’s “narco-state” are all those taking part or suspected of taking part in illegal drug activity. Fear has skyrocketed within underground creative communities due to their assumed ties to drug culture. To Live and Die In Manila documents the lives of musicians and artists surviving under these conditions.
Manila-born artists Eyedress, Owfuck, BP Valenzuela, Teenage Granny and Jeona Zoleta share their musical inspiration, their unique methods of production, their thoughts on the city they call home, and their fears of possible death.
Enjoy the interview and To Live and Die in Manila below. There’s a lot of lessons to be learned from what is happening in the Philippines. You can also watch the short documentary itself at the end of the interview.
Hello Angela! To start things off here, what initially inspired you on this project?
The artists in the film and the burgeoning music scene in Manila is what drove me to document what was going on at this particular point in time. They are all not only talented and deserved a platform to share their music with the world, but were vocal in expressing their concerns about the war on drugs and how it’s seeped into their collective consciousness.
It’s both sad and kind of refreshing at the same time to see these youthful voices speaking out against the authoritarianism of Duterte. Yet, I suspect there are many more insidious and creeping effects behind his drug war than most people would think of. One thing I’m curious about there, what do you think the effects have been on freedom of expression in the Philippines in particular?
I want to be able to say that there is still freedom of speech right now, but like with a lot of other places in the world currently, public opinion is extremely polarised. It means that you can say what you want, but if you go against the grain, people are going to tear you to shreds and they won’t be forgiving about it.
Not unlike the US now.
People are defensive when it comes to this current regime, a lot of public figures, be that journalists or politicians, have been shut down and even imprisoned in their efforts against it, so I feel like we’re starting to cross into really dangerous territory and it’s quite unsettling to witness.
I fear the US may be getting closer to that sort of thing.
It’s unfathomable that Duterte has got away with a lot of the statements he’s made. The one at the beginning of To Live and Die in Manila, which was taken from one of his speeches and left intact, is shocking enough, but that’s one of many absurd things that he’s said. It makes no sense that we’re discouraged by other Filipinos to criticise or question those statements, we only have concerns for the progress of the country and what damage he’s doing to the Filipino psyche by treating human beings like they are disposable.
So many parallels with Trump. Do you see a larger resistance to Duterte and his drug war building?
I believe his popularity rating has gone down in recent months, but I worry for any resistance being ignored and undermined. When you hear news of protests, or see articles that are critical of the government, it’s Filipinos themselves that are quick to dismiss those participants. We are mocked and ridiculed, and expected to fall in line by the majority of Filipinos that support the drug war and are unaffected by it because of their social status, they don’t understand the need for anyone to speak out on behalf of the people that have been killed unjustly.
I hope by releasing this film we’re encouraging more and especially young people to continue to participate in public discourse, who need to make sure they’re ready to intelligently defend their opinions if they differ from the majority.
It’s an odd thing when you look at places like the USA which are, of course, also dealing with drug issues (and variants of authoritarianism, which I have a question on below) but in many ways are choosing the route of liberalization (state marijuana laws becoming more open for instance) and treating the problem of drug abuse like a public health issue and not a penal one. Although we also dealt with people like former Attorney General Jeff Sessions who did all he could to make drug-related penalties more draconian, really not unlike Duterte, Bolsonaro in Brazil, and Erdogan in Turkey.
My question there, what do you think can be done to change the current course in the Philippines?
There’s a big problem in Filipino society with classism and prejudice against the poor or anyone who doesn’t fit the average mold. In order for people to sympathize with the victims of the war on drugs, they have to first see those victims as human beings, and the unfortunate reality is that a lot of people in the Philippines don’t.
The heinous crimes committed by the people participating in the drug trade need to be addressed without tarring everyone that are also victims of those crimes with the same brush. Instead of engaging with the affected communities and making an effort to understand the social and physical environments that allow people to fall into the trap of poverty or drug addiction, Duterte continues to perpetuate this underlying culture of violence that the Philippines has suffered from at the hands of previous governments, and encourages them to be killed mercilessly without any evidence of wrongdoing. And the problem with that is there are so many innocent people getting caught up in it, children included.
As usually happens with these things sadly.
If it isn’t children being killed in the crossfire, they’re finding the bodies, and they’re attending the funerals of their friends or parents, there’s long-term damage being done here. It shouldn’t be the responsibility of these struggling communities to police themselves. Those of us that do wish for the country to improve from the ground up, have to continue speaking up for those that don’t have a voice or the means to escape their situation, but we’re up against a very conservative mindset.
What should Americans (with Trump and his authoritarian tendencies) learn from A- what’s happening in the Philippines and B- the brave example of the artists in your film in advocating for change?
Maria Ressa, a Filipino journalist who has just been named as one of TIME’s people of the year alongside other journalists from around the globe, is finally being recognized for her work in covering the war on drugs, and it’s people like her that we need to protect as well as the artists in this film who are being vocal.
Absolutely. I fear that’s getting harder with the war on the press that is, unfortunately, being waged in the US.
Ressa explained that ‘the Philippines is a cautionary tale for the United States’. In the case of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi who was assassinated, leaders like Trump have been slow to condemn the actions that led to his murder, and he’s not doing enough to say that journalism can continue to be a safe practice, and that’s what’s worrying.
Khashoggi was based in the US from 2017 onwards, and Ressa is questioning who is the moral leader in this case, who is going to set the right example if world leaders like the US won’t take appropriate action?
Profoundly sad and scary.
It’s also a scary time in which social media is being weaponized against real journalism, and I think there’s a lesson to learn in how we can protect ourselves from manipulation, companies like Facebook need to start being held accountable for the ways in which they’ve contributed to the problem, for example by failing to manage the fake news that Duterte’s campaign was built on.
Facebook is still utilized by the current regime to control Filipinos who spend a large part of their time online, I’ve witnessed some of my own family fall victim to it and I feel powerless to stop it.
Yeah. The Philippines is actually the top country for social media usage in the world.
Put another way with the initial question, with this seeming authoritarian trend worldwide, do you think there is hope on the horizon in finally getting the world in the right direction away from that?
The recognition of people like Maria Ressa gives me hope even though her case is a bittersweet one. I don’t know if I could say that we’re going to move away from this trend any time soon, but I think we all need to continue to educate ourselves on the root causes of the issues that some of these authoritarian-leaning leaders are choosing to tackle in misguided ways, we need to learn how to put ourselves in positions to offer positive alternatives and work together towards that.
Very well said. What can our readers do to help the artists in the film in their efforts for change?
Just showing support helps, and being aware that these artists are in the minority in believing that changes need to be made, they’re still in the minority in believing that the deaths need to stop. Therefore they need to be encouraged to continue speaking out, it’s incredibly disheartening when a lot of people in the country continue to undermine their efforts to create awareness of the truth.
Yes, it is. But their example does give some hope. Our final question, what’s next for you?
I’m concerned about not being able to go back to the Philippines in the near future, but I would like to continue to make films there. There’s still a lot of aspects of Filipino culture that I’d like to celebrate as well as critique, and I hope to achieve that through either documentaries or narrative films.