I caught up with Angela Stephenson, the director behind To Live and Die in Manila (which you can watch free below), Boiler Room's new short documentary on President Rodrigo Duterte's brutal authoritarianism and extra-judicial killings in the Philippines – of not just drug pushers but users too – and the artists who oppose it using their creative output.

Since becoming president of the Philippines in 2016, Rodrigo Duterte's war on drugs has caused widespread fear and devastation across Manila. Set in one of the world's most dangerous cities, To Live and Die in Manila gives a vital voice to the musicians (particularly artists like EyedressOwfuckBP ValenzuelaTeenage Granny and Jeona Zoleta) putting their life on the line for their right to showcase creativity that their country associates with drug crimes punishable by death.

This is actually the second interview I've done with Stephenson on this project. The first can be read here at CitizenTruth.org – it gets more deeply into the politics and happenings underlying the resistance of these Filipino artists to Duterte's authoritarian rule.

Still from TO LIVE AND DIE IN MANILA.

For the interview here, Stephenson and I sat down for a chat more about her artistic methods and the actual aesthetic of To Live and Die in Manila – along with the huge challenges of filming such a fundamentally subversive piece in a country where many basic rights have been stripped away.

Catch To Live and Die in Manila – and the interview – below.

TO LIVE AND DIE IN MANILA.

Hello Angela and welcome to The 405! To start things off, I was hoping we could an idea of your artistic history. What attracted you to film as an art form?

Hi, thank you! I've always been interested in photography, but when I didn't get into my chosen university to study for a photography degree, I put it on the backburner and continued to shoot only as a hobby. I started with doing gig photography for fun, and through that I fell into the music industry. I worked with Boiler Room for several years on their live broadcast team, filming parties all over the world. When they started looking at covering more of the context behind the shows, I expressed an interest in moving into a more storytelling role, and with that I eventually started making documentaries and other short-form pieces, it felt like a natural progression.

What initially inspired you to do To Live and Die in Manila?

I really just wanted to shine a spotlight on the amazing music coming out of Manila. I realised I was in a good position to be able to help put Filipino music culture on the map, but I couldn't do that without addressing the situation in the country that all these artists were subjected to and openly vocal about in a lot of their music.

The visual language of the film really suited the subject matter. Gritty, realistic and this sort of balance between despair and precarious hope (reflected in the musicians and artists too). Could we get a look at your process to get the visuals you did?

I guess it was a case of trying to find the balance between celebrating Filipino culture and capturing the realities of life in Manila. I think despair and hope are feelings that you can flit between on an almost daily basis in Manila. To me, the city is beautiful, colourful, and visually stimulating and I wanted to capture that, but it comes with a lot of hard truths that you need to swallow in order to just go about your day. Accepting the traffic, the poverty, and the underlying feeling of danger is all part of life in the city.

Indeed.

Still from TO LIVE AND DIE IN MANILA.

The visuals were shot over a period of two years on two different trips to Manila. On one of the trips I met Paco Raterta, who is a very talented director living and working out of Manila, and he lent me a lot of the visuals he used to create the music video for Eyedress's "Manila Ice" single. Snippets of the video are also featured in the film, particularly the scenes depicting the anonymous dead bodies that you see before Den Sy Ty's performance. These are the kind of images you were seeing in the news at the time.

Cool. Any interesting or funny moments stick out from the filming process?

The whole process felt like one big adventure, I'll never forget it. People are always pretty curious when you're out filming on the streets. I remember being asked angrily by a stranger if I was a journalist when I jumped out of the car to quickly film the posters depicting Duterte as Hitler. People are very sensitive to criticism of the president, and the Philippines is considered the deadliest country in Asia to be a journalist, they're often killed in their line of work and the current government is very keen on silencing Duterte's detractors, so it was sobering to feel threatened for just trying to capture footage in the street.

Really heroic what journalists do in fundamentally authoritarian countries like the Philippines under Duterte.

The part where Owfuck talks about taking acid as part of their creative writing process used footage shot in the red light district, it's quite a common place for people to shoot in because of all the neon lights.

Still from TO LIVE AND DIE IN MANILA showing a scene from the city's interior.

I bet. The realism it brought added greatly to the atmosphere.

I shot it on a big Russian 16mm camera that I bought second hand, and I hadn't inserted the film correctly so all the footage from that day came back fucked up. It ended up being a total blessing in disguise as it actually visually reflected an acid trip quite accurately.

Gotta love those kind of happy accidents. What were the other challenges like?

Taking what is not a popular stance on the government was always going to be challenging. My Filipino mother falls into the majority of the population, being a supporter of Duterte, and I kept the entire process a secret from her until the film was finished. When I eventually sent her the final edit, she was really upset by it. The fact that I had to release the film knowing it could put a strain on our relationship was a burden, but I knew that her view would be shared by a lot of Filipinos, and it prepared me for any criticism to come, from people who would be unhappy by the way the country and the president had been depicted.

Wow yeah.

The criticism just proves how much this film and more like it are really needed, there's a cognitive shift that needs to take place in order for a lot of Filipinos to sympathise with the people whose lives are being affected by the issues discussed here. Jess Kohl's Anarchy in the Philippines film, which was a great portrayal of a punk community in Manila and Tarlac reacting to the war on drugs, also suffered the same fate in the comments section.

Still from TO LIVE AND DIE IN MANILA.

My challenge was inevitably having to challenge a Filipino audience to put their pride aside. This film isn't about blaming Duterte for everything, it's about asking ourselves what attitudes we're reinforcing by allowing our leader to condemn an entire group of people to death, instead of effectively engaging with the affected communities and helping tackle the problem from the root. It's about what example we're setting for ourselves and the next generation, who have only ever been taught that life is cheap in the Philippines.

That gets excellently into another pertinent question. What do you hope will be the main takeaway for people from the film?

I hope that the film engages young Filipinos in the Philippines and around the world, there's a lot of people out there like me who don't believe that we're going in the right direction, that the government is taking shortcuts to tackle a very complex problem.

I am as well, by the way.

Giving the artists in the film a platform to express how they feel and respond to their surroundings is just one small thing I could do to allow people to see how they're being affected directly and indirectly, how they're suffering mentally from living in a society that doesn't place enough value on human lives. We need to strive for a more peaceful society, and it's possible to leave behind the culture of violence that's been passed down from previous governments, but only if we collectively choose to move away from what is deeply rooted classism and seek the truth without prejudice.

Agreed.

The freedom to live without fear is something we should all be entitled to, not just the privileged few who can ignore the problem because they're happy to live under an increasingly authoritarian regime that only sacrifices the freedoms of those considered below them.

Music and art are pretty profound things in terms of their ability to effect social change. What can our readers do – if anything – to help in that?

I feel lucky to have been given the opportunity to talk about what's going on, I think people just being aware of the issues is important, especially in an age of fake news and the government trying to cover its tracks to deny any wrongdoing.

Still from TO LIVE AND DIE IN MANILA.

Couldn't agree more. It's a scourge really.

Duterte's style of leadership is hugely controversial and that also makes it distracting. Showing support for the journalists, photojournalists, musicians and artists who are often putting their lives or careers on the line to criticise the government, will hopefully go a long way. Their efforts can't be for nothing, and there's few people in the country actually taking them seriously. I urge people interested in this topic to look into the work of Filipinos like Maria Ressa, who has just been named as one of Time's people of year alongside other journalists from around the world. And Ezra Acayan, who is a photographer that has been on the ground documenting the suffering of the families who have lost loved ones to the war on drugs since its inception.

Absolutely. Real journalists need support now more than ever.

One question I ask everybody, what films and directors do you consider most pivotal on forming your outlook as a visual artist?

Y Tu Mamá También by Alfonso Cuarón has been one of my favourite films since I was a teenager, and it was special in the way that it was not only adventurous, beautifully shot, and emotionally stirring but also subtly captured the political and economic realities of Mexico at the time and the classist tension between the two main protagonists.

Watching LoveTrue by Alma Har'el was also quite pivotal for me, she blurred the lines between documentary and narrative in such a fascinating way and you could really feel just how involved she was in the lives of her subjects during the filming process.

Still from TO LIVE AND DIE IN MANILA.

And visually, Robby Müller's cinematography has always inspired me. I actually filmed the Manila sunset scene at the beginning of To Live and Die in Manila for another short film I was making based in the city, but when Eyedress said "to live and die in Manila" during our interview, I had to pull it from the other film to use as a tribute to Müller’s work on the opening credits of To Live and Die in LA, it felt quite serendipitous.

Wow. Very fitting. What makes a great film? And what makes a great documentary?

Personally I'm very visually driven, so the cinematography has to be considered and captivating.

Absolutely.

I think first and foremost however I'm quite emotional so I love films that evoke any feelings that I can relate to but can also introduce me to new feelings, and I appreciate any film that can do this by taking me out of the comfort of reality, even if only for a brief moment. While I think documentaries absolutely benefit from having an impartial view and a lot of them need this in order to tell a story accurately, I also think there's a special place for documentaries where you can feel the director has worked alongside the subjects to really express their point of view – that takes a lot of empathy.

Definitely. Have to get in the thick of it – as you did here – to get something really compelling. Finally, what's next for you?

I hope to continue making films that both celebrate and critique different aspects of Filipino culture. Everyone you meet there has an interesting story to tell and I'd like to depict some of these in both documentary and narrative film formats. It's also worth exploring the huge population of overseas Filipinos – there's a lot of issues surrounding the treatment of domestic workers abroad for example. Eyedress and I also made a music video together after meeting and working on this film, so I'd like to form more relationships with artists and make videos together that way too.

Stephenson directed this Eyedress video.