Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 5, 2020

Watch List

Filed under: Film,Phiiippines — louisproyect @ 6:08 pm

Despite its innocuous sounding titled, “Watch List” is the harrowing story of a Filipino woman forced to join a police-led death squad in order to have her name taken off a list of suspected drug users targeted for assassination by the very same type of death squad.

Starring as Maria, Filipino-Italian actress Alessandra De Rossi gets my nomination for best actress of 2020. Filmed on location in one of Manila’s poorest, crime-ridden slums, director and co-screenwriter Ben Rekhi maintains the kind of realism rarely seen in films today. In addition to telling a gripping story about a woman’s struggle to protect her family, he lets a Western audience know exactly how it feels to be trapped in a web of economic circumstances that force so many Filipinos to sell drugs.

As the film begins, we meet Maria and her husband Arturo (whom she calls Turo) and their three children in their tiny apartment. Both are former drug dealers and users but have put that all behind them for the sake of their children. It doesn’t matter to the cops, who barge in one night with an order forcing them to go into a rehab program, that they are clean. If they refuse, they will be arrested for drug violations. The rehab program is something of a joke, with Maria and Turo joining other dragooned slum residents dancing to a disco tune, while cops stand guard over them. After the music ends, the top cop gives them a “just say no” pep talk practically plagiarized from Nancy Reagan.

Since they are both allowed to go home at night and since Turo will still be able to go out at night on a scooter for what appears to be his second job, they settle back into poverty-stricken but contented family life. However, catastrophe strikes when vigilantes, likely in cahoots with the cops, gun him down on the streets. Maria soon learns that he was on a watch list, as was he. People from their slum are targeted by the cops and their paid assassins to kill people on the list, whether they are innocent or guilty of using or selling drugs. Furthermore, she also learns that the only way she can get off the list is by becoming an assassin herself. As someone with a drug-using and selling past, she can be a useful informer as well as a killer. She soon learns that killing does not come easy. Torn between getting off the watch list and the guilt that comes with killing innocent people, she ends up walking a tightrope that would be too much even for Phillipe Petit.

With an all-Filipino cast, the film has an authenticity that belies the director’s career making American films. Born into an Indian family and growing up in Silicon Valley, he studied film  at New York University. After, interning for the Coen brothers production of “O Brother Where Art Thou?”, he said that he learned more about film production than as a student.

He has made a great film that can now be seen on Amazon Prime for only $3.99. It is not to be missed.

I would also recommend a documentary titled “On the President’s Orders” that deals with the mass campaign of intimidation and murder unleashed by President Duterte. If you sign up for a seven-day trial subscription to PBS documentaries on Amazon Prime, you can watch it for free. I reviewed it for CounterPunch last year In the first paragraph, you will see an actual killing that is represented dramatically in “Watch List”:

On the President’s Orders (Saturday, June 15, 8:30 pm, Film at Lincoln Center’s Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center)

This is set in Caloocan, a slum in Manila that is one of the main targets of President Duterte’s war on drugs. In the very beginning of the film, we see two men on a motorcycle drive next to a man standing next to his minicab. One pulls out a gun and shoots him twice, once in the jaw and again in the chest.

Later on, we discover that he is the father of a son who is one of the main subjects of the film, a Caloocan denizen who would be the next target of the police death squad that killed his father. His father, who was on a watch list for being either a seller or user of drugs, had stopped using drugs right after Duterte became president. That was not enough to keep him alive and as a breadwinner for his family.

However, most of the interviews are conducted with the cops who, like Brazil’s, operate as vigilantes. Hung on their own petard, they openly admit to there being an open season on Caloocan’s poor but describe it as necessary to put an end to drugs.

We hear Duterte at the beginning of the film during a state visit to Israel, where he is the guest of another gangster. In an address at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, he says, “Critics compare me to Hitler’s cousin…Hitler massacred 3 million Jews … there’s 3 million drug addicts. There are. I’d be happy to slaughter them.” He added, pointing to himself, “If Germany had Hitler, the Philippines would have …”


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