How a Filmmaker Found a B-Movie Aesthetic to Draw Light to Violence in the Philippines
A Filipino-American journalist bites off more than she can chew (and drink) in the nail-biting 'Manila Death Squad.'
A pleasurably disorienting short film infused with breakneck speed and heightened dramatic tension, Dean C. Marcial's Manila Death Squad is its own candy-colored wallop. Primarily taking place in the back of a bar where a group of vigilantes, drunk and subsequently reckless, come across a Filipino-American journalist requesting to meet their boss, the film blends real life inspiration (corrupt politician-supported vigilantes feel they own the streets) with a B-movie aesthetic (in order to get what she wants, the journalist must compete in a high stakes game).
After a lengthy, successful festival run, Manila Death Squad now premieres on Vimeo (where it was a Staff Pick). No Film School caught up with Marcial to discuss the real-life implications of vigilante justice, violence in the Philippines, the film's eye-popping visual presentation, and how a certain film collaborative in Miami helped bring the project to life.
No Film School: The film is, in part, about stories your grandfather told you about the Davao Death Squad. Was it always your intention to make a fictionalized account of these vigilantes?
Dean Colin Marcial: I was really fascinated with the stories because of how much they intersected with daily life. I met a former New Mexico Congressman with a pancake restaurant in Davao who had the squad scare off some folks who were harassing him in town, and I was taken with how embedded and accepted the idea was in society. It's not that different from having a private security team, a militia, or a mercenary army, and I wanted to tell a story about how people square away that idea to themselves and to others.
I wanted to fictionalize the story by setting it in Manila, not Davao, back then as a way to mythologize the plot instead of making it a burning-social issue drama (like Pepe Diokno's Engkwentro or Brillante Mendoza's Tirador). To me, this kind of thing could really take place anywhere, and in some places we're well on our way, especially in the West. It's less of an account of the DDS as much as it is a reflection on how we're willing to put up with violence for our security.
"I think that's what I wanted this movie to be: that trashy, dusty B-movie you have to search around weird parts of the internet for."
NFS: The film's opening credits, displayed in bright red-and-yellow font, feels inspired by grindhouse, exploitation films of the 1960s and 70s. Did films of that ilk (and of that time period) serve as an influence for you?
Marcial: The opening credits were actually a reference to Bernardo Britto's feature Jacqueline (Argentine). But the extreme color scheme, the set-up, and the aesthetics are very much inspired by the candy-colored, Roger Corman-produced experimental/indie American films from the late 1960's through early 1980s.
I also took a lot from Lino Brocka's Oroporonobis (US title: Fight For Us) and Mike DeLeon's Batch '81, both very politically charged films with different approaches. One's a docudrama and the other is basically A Clockwork Orange as a hazing comedy.
I didn't want the movie to be a grindhouse throwback but my biggest reference was this 60-minute movie I saw on Jeepney TV a couple of years ago. I don't remember the name of it but it was probably shot on 16mm short-ends, and it was about a group of nuns who get captured by a rollicking band of paramilitary anarchists. All the tension was within the dialogue and characterization, and I loved that it was a hidden gem at the bottom of the convenience store DVD pile. I think that's what I wanted this movie to be: that trashy, dusty B-movie you have to search around weird parts of the internet for.
NFS: The film is primarily concerned with a journalist who is looking to question the leader of the Manila Death Squad. Throughout her inquisitive "interrogation" process, we get the sense that we're watching a game unfold, literally a game with a set of peculiar obstacles and rules. What went into mapping out that kinetic back-and-forth, a repartee which everyone in the film accepts as the norm?
Marcial: My co-writer Kent Szlauderbach and I, from the outset, needed to find a way to structure the conversations. If we didn't, they could go on and on. Modifying King's Cup seems to be the best way to cram all we wanted to cover in there: the characters could move on as easily as they could draw the next card.
It also allowed us a lot of levity in the writing, as they're getting lit and mouthing off, and so it's a livelier, rowdier atmosphere, even if they're talking about some really heavy shit. It also raised the stakes for the interrogation, knowing that in order for the journalist to get what she wants, she not only has to win their respect and trust, but she's also gotta win their game.
One of the things that I really love about the movies is that you get to accept these fantastic situations with very little set-up; you don't even think twice. You almost want that kind of stuff to happen in real life and maybe that's what the characters are emulating and fuels their willingness to go along with it. It's like how the guys in The Act of Killing quote action movies and dress up like Hollywood gangsters; maybe you act out what you grew up watching, because it gave you a blueprint for how to act, and then it you make it real again.
"I knew that the beginning and end of the film would be longer takes and in the middle would be this cut-up burrito bowl of a scene."
NFS: In the midst of the dangerous stakes at hand, the film has a breakneck pace that resembles an out of control, arcade-like video game. Did the analog style serve as both a narrative and stylistic choice?
Marcial: I made this film for the internet. Even though it's mixed in 5.1, it really is made for your phone. The ADHD pacing grew out of that desire to be one step ahead of your eyeballs, and the crammed sound mix is something culled from all the radio shows that play in Manila in New York and their ridiculous soundboards. The video-game feel reinforces the Candy Crush overload aesthetic and a lot of that analog video game sound is thanks to Brian McOmber, who made these little "hash bricks" soundscapes of wild, forested sounds that you could cut off a little piece of and pepper it throughout the mix.
Arjun Sheth, the sound mixer, also had the brilliant idea of using Mario Kart sounds because that's a pretty close approximation of the GA in MAGA for some millennials. The look and feel was rooted in that sort of Scott Pilgrim, Nintendo nostalgia, but updated for smartphones.
NFS: And to further illustrate that pace, the film's average shot length has to be less than four seconds (although I didn't specifically time it). Is that a choice that was determined from the beginning of production or rather something that happened to feel right when assembling an edit?
Marcial: I knew that the beginning and end of the film would be longer takes and in the middle would be this cut-up burrito bowl of a scene. In the rough cut, the pacing was a little more balanced—a few holds here and there—but as the edit and sound design advanced, it felt more and more right to see how much we could smash together in the shortest time possible.
When I got out of college I worked with then-editor Max Joseph (now of Catfish fame) on a few Casey Neistat-branded spots, and during those overnights where I'd be pulling selects and assembling dailies, they taught me to look for the critical moments in every shot (usually about 12-30 frames). That was the "core". Commercials are made out of a ton of these little bits, some lasting for a split-second, and I applied that to Manila Death Squad. Except of course, I'm not selling soda.
"There are many more weird shades there than the very serious social drama we're used to. It's 'fun' and 'entertaining' because culturally, for Americans & Filipinos, violence is just that: fun and entertaining."
NFS: In the bar sequence, the subtitles are more brightly lit and stylized. When the characters leave and go outside, however, the on-screen text becomes more standard. Did you find yourself experimenting with the font given the different situations our characters found themselves in?
Marcial: By the time the characters get out of the bar, the aesthetic flips completely into the grittier tone you might expect from a movie with that title. I initially had all the subtitles in that 'standard, foreign-film yellow' on the lower third, but one of the producers suggested that I watch Man on Fire and have a little fun with reading. Plus, it's nice to read subs and look at the actors' delivery at the same time.
That final scene was always supposed to be a stark contrast to what just preceded it. We've all sat around and drank and bullshitted politics, but at the end of their day (and ours), what we're talking about is killing people. We're trying to reckon with those contradictions and present them in a way that mirrors the discourse, in person and online. There are many more weird shades there than the very serious social drama we're used to. It's "fun" and "entertaining" because culturally, for Americans & Filipinos, violence is just that: fun and entertaining.
NFS: What did you shoot with and why was that the best choice for this project?
Marcial: I shot it with the Canon C300 because, frankly, it was super cheap and the only camera I've had any real experience operating (I shot a couple of set-ups on my last film, Sea Devil). The camera is also pretty small, and so it was advantageous for shooting in tight corners and going hand-held.
Our location was a pretty cramped outdoor smoking area of my grandma's cafe, and since it's mostly a documentary camera, it was very versatile and quick. That's how we were able to pop off something like 60 shots in two days. A lot of people think we shot on 16mm, and you can attribute that to the co-producer/colorist Sam Gursky, who went to the edges of the extremes with me and indulged every wrong (or un-commercial) aesthetic choice I could think of to get to where the "film" is now.
NFS: The film is partly a production of the Borscht filmmaking collective. Was it workshopped through Borscht? What role and resources did the organization have that helped to get this film to its completed state?
Marcial: Borscht was my first champion out of film school. The organization produced me and Brett Potter's film Sea Devil and acted as a big sister to our production company back then, Calavera USA. The influence of their radical regional filmmaking philosophy has undoubtedly left a mark on my motivation to make films in the Philippines, to show the world that the media they consume doesn't have to be vetted by profiteers who want to throw up another movie about good soldiers and their madonnas. Since then, we've stayed in each other's orbit (Brett's actually the chairman of the board at Borscht) and have continued to work together.
For Manila Death Squad, Borscht premiered it at their somewhat-biennial film festival when I had just finished the final cut and helped me navigate the festival scene after that: it went on to play Fantastic Fest, Sitges, Slamdance, Seattle, and many more, as well as screening with the Borscht Diez block at Glasgow, Treefort, and Eastern Oregon. I think its greatest quality is throwing gasoline onto the filmmaker fire. The encouragement, support, and couch have been an integral part to my coming-of-age as a director.
NFS: The film was shot in the early half of 2016, but then things got much worse for the Phillippines with the election of Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, unfortunately making Manila Death Squad more frighteningly relevant. Could you explain how things have gotten worse and where the violence and corruption currently stands?
Marcial: I'm not sure if I'm the right person to assess this, but despite how the Philippines is portrayed in Western media, things aren't too different if you're middle class-and-up, sadly. Like all drug wars, this is a war on the poor, and an expensive band-aid for the underlying causes of poverty. Petty crime has gone down, but killings have spiked. What's scary is how casual it's become.
It reminds me of Joan Didion's observation that the 1960s ended when the Manson murders happened and no one was surprised. This seems like the natural, final outgrowth of our zero-sum "fuck you, buddy!" philosophy. I could talk about all the atrocities, sure, but Reuters does it better. I'll say it's actually not far off from what's happening in the States and that's what I sought out to explore in Manila Death Squad: how our rhetoric can dehumanize whole populations, whether it's drug pushers or immigrants, and why for all our supposed progressiveness, we'd still support strongmen who promise to just get things done.
There are many different kinds of violence—physical, economic, cultural—and as long as we keep embracing those methodologies, the bodies are going to keep piling up.