By Heinrich Domingo
And when the innocents were killed, the audience erupts in cheers.
It is Cinemalaya’s opening night. I joined hundreds of cinema enthusiasts while enduring the Friday traffic of Manila to watch this year’s opening film. Buybust tells the story of a drug raid in an urban jungle in Tondo. It follows an operation of a team of PDEA, the country’s topmost police agency specifically made to counter the drug trade. In a time when the war on drugs is the President’s main platform, Erik Matti’s choice of narrative is poignant and bold.
There have been various attempts in the film industry to produce works that discuss the current political climate in the country. Cinema-goers have been in search of a film that captures a president’s obsession with battling drugs, the thousands of killed individuals during police drug operations, and the anti-drug policies that target the poor. Respeto and Amo are top contenders on this list, but honestly, they lack depth and criticality to dissent Duterte’s war on drugs.
Buybust, then, has the potential to make a difference politically. It can even jumpstart the production of more courageous films that unabashedly resist the current regime. On the one hand, it has a big hole to fill when it comes to audience expectations. Its filmmakers are burdened to provide an on-point discussion on the war on drugs; to give a film that the critical mass has been waiting for, so to speak.
In the gigantic theatre of CCP, I patiently waited for Matti’s discourse of the Philippine war on drugs; specifically on how the slums become the target of unscrupulous police operations; on how the macho culture of the national police results in the murder of poor drug victims. Sadly, I got the opposite. Instead, in front of me unraveled a tale of a police agent defying death from the attacks of the combined forces of drug traders and the poor, urban community. There was a confluence between the just, the innocent, and the crooks. Among those three, Matti chose the police forces as its point of view thereby effectively blurring the nuance between the community folk and the drug traders.
The film opted to put the PDEA team in the center of its plot. The audience empathized with this team. They fell in love with the towering, white Caucasian-looking agent who killed hundreds of brown, stingy urban dwellers. They reveled at the death of the community. The crowd cheered when the agents electrocuted a group of women who were avenging their fallen husbands from the drug war. And, when Anne Curtis’ character punched and stabbed a woman in hijab, CCP exploded in a booming roar.
Buybust is an insult to the victims of Duterte’s war on drugs. Its portrayal of the local community as rabid and zombie-like perpetuates the stereotypical notion against the poor urban communities. The film fails to provide them with humanity and dignity. There was no character build up and no motivation for their roles. Like Duterte’s drug war, all are casualties and faceless numbers in the rich and powerful’s game. It is no doubt then that the film audience ends up empathizing with the wrong group.
In its last ten minutes, the film tries to deliver its lip service. It attempts to explain the idea that the problem lies outside the bounds of the characters. Poverty and corruption in the Philippines are systemic. In spite of this crude attempt, the film has done its damage. It has made the audience laugh at the wrong parts and at the wrong characters.
In retrospect, watching Buybust in CCP reveals more than the problematic narrative of the film. Watching the middle class and intellectual elites rejoice at the work of Matti reminded me of why we haven’t seen an on-point discussion on Duterte’s war on drugs. Why, at critical times like this, we haven’t seen the rise of a cinema movement like what we have seen in the times of Brocka and Bernal in the 70s. Our films are made for and by the middle class sitting in their comfortable seats with little to nothing to lose. A buy-bust in the urban jungle of Tondo is but a spectacle. It incites emotions. At certain points, it even crashes our beliefs and ideologies. But, films like this permit our middle-class asses to leave the cinema without doing anything. After all, it is our economic class that remains heroes at these times of crises.