WATCH LIST: Si Babae at Baril
Ben Rekhi’s Watch List follows the struggles of Maria (Alessandra Rossi), a widowed mother of three kids, to eke out a living and keep her brood together after her husband, Arturo (Jess Mendoza), is shot by a masked gunman linked to an anti-drug vigilante force. Maria dutifully goes through the barangay channels to seek justice for her husband but Hector (Lou Veloso), the barangay officer, warns her that her tainted background as a former drug user named in a police watch list diminishes her credibility and makes her a likely target for the same group that murdered her husband.
Ventura (Jake Macapagal), a smooth-talking cop who leads a squad out to cleanse the city slums of drug syndicates as part of the notorious Oplan Tokhang, eyes Maria as a possible asset to their clandestine operations. In a seedy bar, he offers her the job of joining his squad not as an informant but as a vigilante tasked with shooting lowlife drug lords and their ilk. If she accepts, he will remove her name from the watch list thus relieving her of her fears. Seeing no way out, Maria reluctantly accepts and carries out Ventura’s sinister assignments with Alvin (Art Acuna) as her partner and flinty mentor who trains her how to shoot to kill. She is revolted by her complicity in Ventura’s executions but she continues since she is able to provide for the daily needs of her children.
Mark, her inquisitive teen-age son (Micko Laurente), wonders aloud to her about her income and the source of their sustenance. He snoops on his mother and discovers her vile secret. In anger, he looks for Joel, his cousin (Timothy Mabalot), who runs his own drug lab. As he hangs out with him and his entrepreneurial gang, Mark finds the affirmation he longs for from Maria.
Agreeing to do one last assignment, Maria joins Alvin not knowing that Joel’s hideout is their next target. In the ensuing encounter, Alvin orders Maria to shoot Joel but Maria kills Alvin. Marl screams at Maria and Maria tries to calm him down. Mother and son reconcile. Ventura’s backup squad arrives and a bloodbath transpires. Ventura cleans up the mess to clear the police of any involvement or liability. Shocked at the tragic outcome, Mark, whose life is spared, is released by the police. Ventura tells him to leave and Mark races through the slum streets from night till morning as the film blurs out.
The sweeping anti-drug war waged by the Duterte administration has driven various filmmakers to interrogate, critique and protest the war’s indiscriminate killings and the mounting and staggering number of casualties and deaths in many parts of the country. Feature films like Erik Matti’s Buy Bust and documentaries like Alyx Arumpac’s Aswang expose the gory underbelly and untrammeled atrocities of Oplan Tokhang. These films in particular highlight the massive scale of the operation’s duplicity and hypocrisy and the spectacle of multi-layered entanglements binding drug lords, law enforcers, barangay leaders, and political figures. Unlike these films that frame the social malaise from a macro point of view, Rekhi takes an intimate approach by focusing his lens on a single mother’s attempts to protect her family and bring them to a safe place. Although the film confines itself to Maria’s dilemma, the film through Maria’s harrowing assignments unveils a society where vigilantism and police brutality are legitimized and normalized.
Rona Lean Sales and Rekhi’s screenplay studiously charts Maria’s dehumanization as a cog in the State’s violent machinery of extra-judicial killings. She is either hyperfeminized by wearing a tawdry blond wig disguise in one of her missions or defeminized, made to merge with and appear indistinct from hooded and masked motorcycle-riding gunmen who prowl the city’s backstreets and alleys. In some aspects, Watch List is the ominous shadow to Rae Red’s Babae at Baril. Both films depict patriarchy’s asphyxiating grip on women. Both films’ lead characters use their wits to navigate the dizzying maze of male power play. Both trace the narrative arc of women’s objectification, exploitation and victimization. Both Babae and Maria grapple with guns and experience its lethal might. However, Babae in Red’s film becomes woke and as an emblem of agency, chooses to disrupt the chain of violence and gains a semblance of control of her daily life. On the other hand, Maria, while presented as conflicted about her participation, is ultimately crushed by the State she serves and becomes another statistic in the drug war’s mind-numbing body count.
As the lead character, Alessandra de Rossi etches an indelible portrait of Maria. Being onscreen most of the time, de Rossi essays a feisty and steel-willed mother trying to make sense of the horrors that surround and close in on her. De Rossi’s fluctuations between resistance and compliance are finely drawn thanks to the tight screenplay. Her controlled pathos at the end underscores her mature understanding of Maria’s plight. As Maria’s son, Micko Laurente fittingly embodies adolescent angst. His aimless running towards the camera at the end is a throwback nod to the closing scene of Francois Truffaut’s 400 Blows, channeling an image of a lost, orphaned and traumatized generation. With gritty cinematography by Daniella Nowitz, brisk editing by Nick Ellsberg and Liza D. Espinas, and noirish production design by Ericson Navarro, director Rekhi pointedly conveys an entropic world collapsing on itself, very much removed from the utopia promised and trumpeted by the State’s gaslighting anti-drug messiahs.
Addiction to heroin, morphine and other forms of opiates had been around since forever – said to be way before the time of Christ. The effect of substance abuse on humanity had been so serious, it resulted in two Opium Wars – with China always ending up as the poor, hapless victim. At least, in the beginning of time.
The whole mess started in the 19th century when there was an excess of poppy harvest in India, which was then a colony of Great Britain. Poppy is a lovely flower, but it is the main ingredient used in making opium. Given the oversupply of poppy during that period, some enterprising British decided to go into opium manufacturing.
The problem was where to sell all that opium. Shipping the illegal product from India all the way to Europe was too risky. Since India shares borders with China, the Chinese people easily became the target market. Soon enough, China had to deal with a huge drug problem that became difficult to contain.
When Chinese authorities tried to put a stop to such illegal trade, Britain even had the temerity to bully China (a scenario quite unthinkable today). It was actually in the first Opium War that China lost Hong Kong to Britain.
In the course of time, the problem of dope became a global menace. Here in the Philippines, there were already notorious drug pushers even before World War II.
In the 1960s, drug addiction was such a big societal problem that it became a popular subject in the movies. In the 1961 film Sandata at Pangako, for instance, Charito Solis was cast as a drug dependent guided on her way to recovery by Fernando Poe, Jr.
For his Metro Manila Film Festival entry in 1977, the late director Gil Portes went back to the 1960s and turned into a movie the journalistic exploits of news reporter Rodolfo T. Reyes. For his series in the old Manila Times, Reyes went undercover to be able to penetrate a notorious Manila drug den. The film starred Matt Ranillo III and Bembol Roco and was fittingly titled Sa Piling ng mga Sugapa.
The problem of substance abuse persists to this day. It therefore shouldn’t come as a surprise that filmmakers continue to make movies tackling drug-related issues.
The film Watch List is also all about drugs – how it affects the people and what the government is doing to solve this problem. Set in one of Metro Manila’s depressed areas, the story begins with the government’s initiative to allow drug users to turn a new leaf by peacefully surrendering to authorities.
It is not exactly a voluntary surrender because those suspected of using drugs are fetched from their homes and brought to a barangay center where they are made to attend a seminar on drug rehab. It is a humiliating experience for those concerned because the program is conducted in full view of the neighborhood. Among the participants are husband and wife Turo and Maria (Jess Mendoza and Alessandra de Rossi).
When they are told to return home after a brief detention, they begin to think that they can already start life anew – away from the ghost of a past defined by substance abuse. Turo even begins to look for a job to support his family.
It doesn’t take long, however, before he is killed – “tukhang” style, a vigilante manner of execution. Nobody knows the author behind the crime.
With her husband gone, Maria is faced with the huge challenge of raising three children. Basically unskilled, she is forced to take part in the drug sting operations of the cops and is paid on a per project basis.
Aside from the financial gains, Maria also decides to cooperate with the police in the hope that she’d find out who killed her husband. What she discovers instead are the ruthless charades employed by the authorities tasked with the enforcement of the administration’s anti-drug campaign.
Prior to Watch List, there had been other local films that were critical of the government’s war against drugs. Most noteworthy is Erick Matti’s BuyBust, which won the 2018 Gawad Urian for best picture.
Watch List, however, doesn’t have the financial backing enjoyed by BuyBust, which was produced by Viva Entertainment. In terms of production values, Watch List is a scaled-down version of BuyBust that boasts of huge action scenes now rarely seen in local films due to budget constraints.
But Watch List is not necessarily just some BuyBust miniature. The manner in which it sends its message across is so much bolder and definitely more fearless compared to BuyBust, which has become the yardstick for films of this genre. And while Watch List is not all that visually impressive, its rough edges actually make it even more effective as a crime-thriller set in the bowels of the city.
The film exposes everything you want to know – from A-Z – about the flaws of the government’s anti-drug operation. The list is quite long.
Of course, there is already the given fact about how the big fish always goes scot-free – with the small fry eternally the sacrificial lamb. This is the typical scenario in any administration – past or present: the head honcho gets away with murder, while the underlings end up in prison.
The only exception must have been during the time of Ferdinand Marcos, but only for a brief period. Surely, the execution of drug lord Lim Seng must have been the only positive outcome of martial law.
Watch List also delves into the intricate drug operations in the Philippines. It digs so deep that it is able to uncover the involvement of some erring law enforcers – the very people supposedly tasked with solving the drug problem.
And what about those cases of mistaken identity? Watch List also courageously calls out the government’s utter disregard for human life in one very important sequence toward the film’s climax.
Watch List is directed by Ben Rekhi. He is of Indian descent, but grew up in Silicon Valley. He must have really done a lot of research while working on Watch List. He is familiar not only with governmental issues in the Philippines, but also with basic Filipino culture.
One light moment he includes in the film is the part where Maria blows part of her initial earnings on treats for her kids. That is typically Filipino. And, yes, it has to be Jollibee Chicken Joy for the ultimate Pinoy satisfaction.
The director’s meticulous ways and thorough manner of handling the material allow the actors to widen their acting range all throughout the film. Take the case of Micko Laurente as Alessandra’s eldest child in the movie (they were also mother and son in Bambanti). Micko’s character is in an awkward stage of his life as a teen.
While his father is still alive, he is practically still child-like. But you see how his behavior and emotions begin to mature after his father’s death.
The bewilderment in his eyes is also evident as he gets exposed to the wicked ways of the world. You see all that when he begins to hang around with his wayward cousin who deals with drugs. Micko delivers the best performance by a juvenile this year.
Watch List’s best asset, of course, is still Alessandra de Rossi. She should be hailed best actress of 2020 for this movie.
Her role may be interpreted several ways: she could either go hysterical or subtle. She wisely chooses to temper the part. This is to be expected of her as the most disciplined local actress of her time. Or maybe of all time since the late Charito Solis – for all her greatness – sometimes had the tendency to go all over town in her highly-charged dramatic moments on the big screen.
But Alessandra could be counted on to handle any character with restraint. This is how she does it in Watch List. As a hit lady, she could have done her scenes a la Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft. But she resists the temptation and opts for tentativeness every time she has to wield a firearm.
Her body movement says it all. Even her eyes drip with guilt at each occasion she has to take part in an extra-judicial killing.
The interpretation of the lead character in Watch List is crucial to the story since the scenes in the film must have been inspired or culled from real life events and circumstances.
The character played by Alessandra is most likely a composite of individuals who got involved in drugs or the fight against it. Her reaction and interaction with the people around her (including the spineless barangay captain played by Lou Veloso) sum up the message of Watch List: that under this administration’s anti-drug war, former drug dependents are trapped at a dead-end even if they are willing to reform.
Watch List may be critical of the drug campaign being enforced by the government, but surely it does not condone drugs. And neither is it sympathetic toward drug users. What it is trying to say is that there must be a better way to eradicate the drug problem without the unnecessary loss of lives.
It is also a sad commentary on the breakdown of the country’s justice system.