A young mother struggles against an unmoving system and a one-sided war on drugs in Ben Rehki’s drama.
“If there were enough jobs for everyone then no one will be forced to do illegal things.”
Rodrigo Duterte, current president of the Philippines, is no stranger to controversial legislation and quotes. In 2016 he ran on a strong anti-drug platform, promising to go hard against dealers and users even going so far as to compare himself to Hitler. “Hitler massacred three million Jews,” he starts, before referring to the three million drug users in the Philippines, stating “I’d be happy to slaughter them”. It’s a dark, bold statement and is the striking way that filmmaker Ben Rehki chooses to start Watch List.
It certainly makes for an eye-opening first minute, but also works as an epigraph for the events to follow. The film opens with a shot of police officers entering a barangay – and immediately I had flashbacks to BuyBust. Would Watch List be another brutal shoot-em-up? Hardly. Watch List, though no less brutal in places, goes for a more realistic approach. It focuses on one woman: Maria (Alessandra de Rossi), who, along with her husband Arturo (Jess Mendoza) is sent to a government-sponsored rehabilitation program for drug users. Despite having been clean for years, they’re on the government’s watch list, though compliance will certainly make things easier for them.
This turns out to be untrue. Shortly after completing their program, Arturo is killed and a cardboard sign is placed by him. I’m a pusher don’t be like me, it reads. Maria, left to provide for their three children alone, is forced to push ahead despite the social stigma that follows her everywhere. That they were clean doesn’t matter: she’s the wife of a man who was killed by one of the roaming extra-judicial killers, vigilantes dedicated to cleaning up the streets. And like her friend Hector says: once you’re on the list, it’s impossible to get off.
This proves to be true. Maria struggles to find a job anywhere, and soon has to make some desperate choices. We’ve looked at how the Philippines’ highly religious culture and crippling poverty makes for some troublesome family dynamics, and Watch List emphasises this more, by showing what happens when a family just can’t make ends meet. We see what happens when the system is so rigged against you that, like quicksand, the more you struggle against it the more you sink. And it’s tragic to see this happen to parents who are doing everything they can to ensure their children grow up better than they were.
Unlike BuyBust and a few Filipino TV shows about the topic, which made more of a spectacle of the Philippines’ rampant drug problems, Watch List treats it differently. The policy has a shockingly high approval number amongst Filipinos (at least from a point of view of a Westerner whose only knowledge of it comes from the news and John Oliver), but that number will affect the way it’s been portrayed. Watch List is critical of the practise, but it never preaches. It understands that the country has a big problem that needs fixing, but driving up to randos who might not even be the right target, shooting them (including sometimes planting drugs on them) and leaving a sign is probably not the best way to tackle it. The Asian Cinema Critic doesn’t often do politics, but it’s impossible to talk about Watch List and not talk about how Duterte’s policies affect the people who have no power to do anything about it.
I have any issue with the movie it’s that it struggles to find a voice until roughly the halfway mark. Thankfully de Rossi is a fantastic actress and her desperation guides us through some of the rougher set-up scenes, but it could have done with reaching its primary conflict a lot sooner. Similarly, the b-story, which features eldest son Mark come to terms with his new reality, doesn’t quite have the urgency or the punch it needs. It’s still effective in places, and meshes well with the a-plot at the end, but it could have been integrated better in places to keep the story flowing.
One could make an argument that the extra-judicial killers are the villains of the story but they’re only acting in the way that seems the most moral to them. They have bought in so strongly to Duterte’s war on drugs that they’re willing to ignore mistaken identity deaths as inevitable collateral. Every character in this story is a product of the world they inhabit, and is shaped by a society that demonises and does absolutely nothing to actually help the people it’s claiming to work for.
Because what’s the point of giving yourself up voluntarily and joining a rehab program if that will only hurt your chances of living a normal life? It’s no coincidence that every terrible thing that happens in Maria’s life comes as soon as she and Arturo publicly attend those corny Zumba classes. Ultimately, Watch List shows us a system that isn’t designed to help anyone, but perpetuates and enforces a cycle that affects not just individuals, but the generations below. As Mark runs towards the camera in the final shot, it’s impossible to say whether after everything he’s seen he’s running towards the better future his parents envisioned, or back to the only life that seems available to him. It’s a perfect shot to end on because at least right now, for three million people Duterte seems hell-bent on slaughtering, no one knows where this is going.
Verdict: Politically charged and deeply grim, Watch List is tough to sit through at times, but is also a very engaging and impactful drama.
Overall entertainment: 8.5/10
Sex: Surprisingly 0/10
Peter: Aw man, what a nice guy
Suffocation scene: Jesus that went on for a while
Symbolism: Literal blood on her hands.
Watch List (2020)
Director: Ben Rehki
Writers: Ben Rekhi, Onay Sales
Alessandra de Rossi – Maria
Jess Mendoza – Arturo