‘Happy Jail’ filmmaker wanted to tell CPDRC story “from inside out”
Vanessa Balbuena (The Freeman) - August 24, 2019 - 12:00am

CEBU, Philippines —  Michele Josue, the Filipina-American behind Netflix’s recent documentary series on the Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center’s Dancing Inmates, was careful not to go the way of previous features on the subject. She wanted the insiders conveying their stories, not the outsider telling it for them.

The result? A heartfelt, genuine account of life inside the unique Philippine jail known for a viral Michael Jackson dance video, says the Emmy Award-winner.

Over a period of three years, Josue and her team immersed themselves inside CPDRC, which made headlines the world over when it implemented dancing as part of the inmates’ exercise and rehabilitation. Years after its dance video became viral, it faced intense scrutiny when an ex-convict is hired to run it.

In an interview with The Freeman, Josue shares what incident changed the narrative for them, how it felt to witness inmates paddled right in front of their eyes, and what this Happy Jail taught her about Filipinos and the human spirit.

When you came across the YouTube Dancing Inmates video, were you, during that time, specifically searching or exploring for topics from the Philippines as a docu subject? Why the interest in the Dancing Inmates?

No, I wasn’t. But the video was all over the internet at that time, so it was almost impossible not to see it. From a Western standpoint, you just don’t ever see something like that in the jails here. Plus, the dancing is so good! So on that level, I thought a project on the Dancing Inmates would be incredibly entertaining. But going a little deeper, I felt there was so much more to that video. I see it as this sort of modern depiction of what is at the heart of being Filipino: community, resilience, and joy in the face of immense challenges.

As a Filipina-American, what were your initial thoughts seeing them perform?

When I first watched them perform, I was astounded, and as a Fil-Am, I was proud to see such a wonderful expression of Filipino creativity, talent, and the enduring human spirit. My team was equally wowed. Visually, it’s very grand, almost overwhelming to see 1,000 inmates all in their orange uniforms dancing their hearts out. The very first time I saw the Dancing Inmates, I specifically remember being really impressed by one of their lead dancers. I learned that he stays down in isolation, but he’s such a good dancer, the jail administration asks him to perform when it’s time to dance. So it can be hard to reconcile that this is all happening inside a jail.

What specific incident or interview made you realize that this should no longer be a straightforward film on the Dancing Inmates, that there was more to explore than the dancing?

Yes, I think there were a couple of instances where the narrative was demanding we start paying closer attention. The inmates had a lot to say about the jail and also their own personal lives, so that was something we wanted to spend time on. But of course the escape at the end of episode three was an event that was the catalyst for so much at the jail, and therefore, our film.

You have surprisingly articulate (Montemayor), endearing (Maloloyon, etc) inmate interview subjects. What was the process of choosing among the thousands which inmates to lengthily talk to?

It was quite organic. In the case of Rico Montemayor and Marlon Maloloyon, they both approached our team, not the other way around. That was generally how it happened. Rico and Marlon were both very curious about us and what we were filming and were eager to share about their lives. I found them so compelling in completely different ways and thought it was very interesting how Rico and Marlon represented two different sides of the inmate experience. I like how episode three is a type of duet between Rico, the jail veteran, and Marlon, who is so hopeful.

Before filming, what were your expectations? What were met and what were proven wrong?

When I start a project, I try my best to manage or remove as many expectations I can. I think the most fulfilling shoots are the ones where you allow yourself the room to be surprised and to learn new things. With this project in particular, I wanted us all to be completely open and immersed in the experience of being inside CPDRC. I was wary of always seeing pieces done on the Dancing Inmates that centered around the outsider looking in. I wanted our approach to be authentic and genuine. I wanted to tell the story from the inside out.

What were your apprehensions in filming inside a jail facility? Did these apprehensions prove true?

Well, it’s true that the dancing can make you momentarily forget that you’re filming inside a jail. But in our experience, we felt very safe. We even had several self-appointed bodyguards.

What was the level of access that CPDRC accorded to your team? What did they not allow to be filmed?

We were given full access to film at CPDRC by Marco Toral. We were very respectful and didn’t film with anyone who didn’t want to be filmed.

Following CPDRC, Marco Toral specifically, for a period of three years, how did you remain detached from the subject and be as objective as you can possibly be?

I would never describe myself as a detached or objective filmmaker. We had a specific point of view and we worked hard to offer every single one of our subjects, including Marco Toral, empathy, respect, and understanding. Our storytelling here was heartfelt.

That scene where they paddled four inmates inside Toral’s office and a shot was fired. How was the experience witnessing that?

That scene was particularly hard. We were very surprised to learn that the paddling was going to take place in front of the camera. My understanding is that paddling is a “final option” for discipline at the jail and a very common practice in Philippine jails. But my heart went out to those four inmates because it was clearly very scary and painful.

Thousands of inmates dancing in tribute to their jail administrator – even movies haven’t concocted a plotline like that so far. Can you share how it was like for you to witness that?

That dance scene blows my mind every single time I watch it. It’s so beautiful, emotional, and so heartfelt. Everyone who witnessed that dance that night was so affected. I will always remember that moment for the rest of my life.

Have you kept in touch with Toral and the rest? If yes, how has he been, what has been up to?

I’ve been in touch with Marco and Vince, and they both seem to be doing well. As for a few inmates, I know that some of them have been released, which is great news. But for the rest of the inmates, it’s very hard to find out if they are still at CPDRC or where exactly they are now and how they are doing.

How has working on “Happy Jail” changed you?

It’s been an enormous honor to work on “Happy Jail,” and I feel it’s helped me be a better person and a stronger filmmaker. The inmates have taught me so much about the power of hope, faith, community, and the human spirit.

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