Philippine director puts women at the 'heart' of drug war film

Cecil Morella - Agence France-Presse
Philippine director puts women at the 'heart' of drug war film
Poster of Sheryl Rose Andes' "Maria"

MANILA, Philippines — Widows and mothers are at the "heart" of a gritty documentary by Philippine filmmaker Sheryl Rose Andes, who turns the camera on women left behind by former president Rodrigo Duterte's deadly drug war.

More than 6,000 people were killed in police anti-drug raids during Duterte's six-year term, which ended in June 2022, government data shows. 

Rights groups estimate the real figure was in the tens of thousands, mostly poor men living in slums who died at the hands of law enforcers, hitmen, and vigilantes. 

Many of the victims had wives or partners and mothers, who have had to deal with the heartbreak and hardship of losing a loved one and often the family's main breadwinner.

In her new documentary "Maria," Andes follows two of these women, Mary Ann Domingo and Maria Deparine, as they struggle to survive and find justice.

"We have to register that this thing really happened. And now people need to see what has happened to their families," Andes told said in an interview.

Andes said she was inspired to make the film out of fear that Filipinos could forget, or never learn, about the brutal period in their nation's history. 

She got a "huge wake-up call" when one of her students in a filmmaking course she teaches at Mapua University in Manila expressed surprise that the drug war was "really happening."

Related: LIST: Competing full-length feature films at Cinemalaya 2023

That moment in 2020 — four years into Duterte's drug war, which made headlines around the world and sparked an international investigation into alleged human rights abuses — left her aghast.

Three years later, "Maria" is the first full-length documentary to compete in the country's independent film festival Cinemalaya, which opened August 4.

"Maria" — a common name for women in the Catholic-majority Philippines — focuses on the harrowing experiences of Domingo and Deparine, which Andes says gives the film "heart and emotion."

The documentary shows the women doing menial jobs to support their families and making tearful visits to the tombs of their loved ones.

"I zoomed in on the details because it should not just be about numbers," said Andes. "This is a story about women. I don't want this to be remembered as a drug war story."

'It is very difficult'

Deparine lost two of her sons within days of each other in September 2016. One was with a local drug dealer when they were abducted by unidentified men.

They were both shot in the head and their bodies dumped under a bridge. Six days later, a second son was arrested by police at the home of a drug-dealing couple. He was later found dead under another bridge.

Related: Probe into Duterte 'drug war' resumes as ICC rejects Philippines' bid to block it

Since their deaths, Deparine, who works in a fish cannery and voted for Duterte in 2016, has moved multiple times with her husband and surviving son as they struggle to make enough money to pay the rent.

In the same month Deparine lost her sons, Domingo's partner and teenage son were killed in a nighttime police raid while the family slept in their shanty home. 

Later, she and three of her surviving children had to flee for fear of their safety.

Lawyer Kristina Conti, who is helping Domingo seek justice for their deaths, said the four officers who allegedly shot dead her partner and son had been freed on bail and were back in uniform after serving short suspensions. 

That's despite the men facing a homicide trial.

"As a mother who lost her partner, it is very difficult. At times I just wanted to give up, and at times I actually did," Domingo, 49, said in an interview. "This (film) is our chance to show to the world what happened to us."

'Political stand'

Catholic priest Flaviano Villanueva, who appears in "Maria," said widows, mothers, and grandmothers endured "unimaginable" hardships to keep their remaining family members alive.

Related: Victims' families, groups hail ICC decision to proceed with 'drug war' probe

Villanueva, who runs a support group for the families of the drug war's dead, said there was a "social stigma" that led to discrimination against those left behind.

Orphans were "bullied" at school and widows excluded from government assistance because "her husband got killed for being a drug addict", he said.

Another woman who features prominently in the film is former Philippines vice president Leni Robredo, a vocal critic of the drug war who is seen consoling Domingo and Deparine.

Robredo ran in the 2022 presidential election but lost by a huge margin to the son and namesake of the country's late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who has continued the drug war. 

Andes, who spent a decade working for a non-government organization before turning her hand to filmmaking, refuses to shy away from difficult subjects.

She said documentaries were a "powerful tool" in retelling history, but she feared that Filipinos preferred "escapism" and were not prepared to face grim reality.

Despite Duterte stepping down more than a year ago and Marcos Jr. vowing to take the drug war in a new direction, Andes said the killings "never stopped."

"A documentary takes a political stand," she said. "We are not fiction and we are not here to titillate."

RELATED: A year into presidency, Marcos quietly keeps Duterte’s drug war going — rights groups

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