WATCH LIST movie poster | ©2020 Dark Star Pictures

WATCH LIST movie poster | ©2020 Dark Star Pictures

Rating: Not Rated
Stars: Alessandra de Rossi, Arthur Acuña, Jake Macapagal
Writers: Rona Lean Sales & Ben Rekhi
Director: Ben Rekhi
Distributor: Dark Star Pictures
Release Date: August 21, 2020 (theatrical); September 1, 2020 (VOD)

WATCH LIST opens with real-world footage of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte making an anti-drug speech, and tacitly praising Hitler. This is not an endorsement by the filmmakers, but rather their way of stating up front what ordinary Filipino citizens are up against in the Duterte regime’s war on drugs.

We meet Maria (Alessandra de Rossi), her husband Turo, and their three youngsters, aged thirteen, nine, and five. Turo works two jobs to keep the family fed and sheltered in their working-class digs, while Maria looks after the children. Then Maria and Turo are forcibly brought by police into a “voluntary” government drug rehab program, even though the couple have been clean for years.

At first, this seems like a minor inconvenience. But soon after, Turo is shot dead in the street, with a sign scrawled on cardboard calling him a drug pusher left beside the corpse. Maria is devastated, and also destitute.

Trying to both earn a living and find out what happened to Turo, Maria turns to the police. At the same time, her eldest, thirteen-year-old Mark, starts hanging around his more worldly cousin Joel.

WATCH LIST takes on a lot, including the cycle of horrendous poverty that encourages the drug trade (both those who sell because they can’t find other work, and those who buy to dull their misery). However, what director Ben Rekhi and his co-writer Rona Lean Sales are most intent on examining are the links between the actual police and the vigilantes who kill anyone suspected, rightly or wrongly, of being a drug trafficker. They convincingly depict how ethical lines are erased by violent action, and how easily people of goodwill and even children can be sucked into the vortex.

De Rossi gives a soulful, empathetic performance as Maria. Art Acuña is excellent as her eventual associate, and Jake Macapagal registers as the deceptively avuncular police officer handling Turo’s death.

Director Rekhi handles WATCH LIST’s contradictions deftly. In the slums, we see energy, despair, color, filth, a place that bustles with vigor and determination, as well as desperation. We also see how people who truly believe in right and wrong can be coerced into actions they abhor.

The filmmakers don’t glamorize the drug trade, but they come down on the side of fairness and humanity. Multiple international news organizations have observed the apparent collusion between the police and the vigilantes, where there is both murder under color of authority and law enforcement using unofficial assassins to carry out hits. This is not simply a dramatic notion floated by WATCH LIST for effect, but a horror that deserves worldwide attention – even though the world has got a lot to attend to at present. The overall impact is harrowing.

WATCH LIST is performed in Tagalog, with English subtitles. Oddly, though none of the characters converse in English, that is the language of virtually all of the signage on the buildings. This is a cultural peculiarity we don’t learn about in the course of the film, but it’s intriguing to contemplate.

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