The first ever Philippine production on the global streaming giant Netflix will debut on 9 April, in a gritty portrayal of the controversial and bloody war on drugs being waged by President Rodrigo Duterte.
The divisive crackdown against drugs, which has killed thousands of Filipinos since 2016, will be tackled in ‘Amo’, the story of Joseph, a high school student who starts out as a small-time meth pusher but gets caught up in a dangerous circle of drug lords, crooked police and corrupt officials.
The series itself may also prove controversial, with one human rights group already calling for it to be cancelled.
It’s acclaimed director, Brillante Mendoza, once praised by Hollywood royalty Quentin Tarantino for the “bold, daring” film that won him “best director” at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, is known for his confronting style of social realism.
He has faced previous censorship in his conservative majority Catholic homeland over the explicit nature of his work, and also been forced to deny accusations of “poverty porn.”
In an interview with The Telegraph, Mr Mendoza revealed a hint of apprehension about how his new series will be received.
“I have this feeling that because I am doing a series against illegal drugs that people are prejudging it,” he said.
“It will pass through different points of view, different perspectives, depending on the subject matter that we are dealing with,” he added.
“It will start with the young student because he is the lead character who is selling drugs but then he has a relative, an uncle who is a corrupt policeman, so we focus on him.”
The drugs war has been hugely contentious in the Philippines, and abroad. At home, Duterte’s uncompromising battle against drugs has won him plaudits, and his approval ratings have been persistently high, reaching 79% in January.
But he has faced stinging international criticism of his human rights record and threats of United Nations investigations into extrajudicial killings.
According to official statistics, about 4,000 Filipinos have been killed in a police campaign targeting drugs dealers and users since Mr Duterte came to power in mid-2016. Human rights groups have documented thousands more, executed on the streets by masked assassins.
At least one group – the International Network of People who Use Drugs (INPUD) – has called for the show to be cancelled, fearing that it will “actively promote” extrajudicial killings and violence.
“Glorifying President Duterte’s war on drugs is glorification of mass murder, killings and human rights abuses,” claimed INPUD executive director, Judy Chang.
Mr Mendoza denies these accusations. He said his production would not shy away from portraying police corruption and the horrific impact of both extrajudicial murder and the illegal drugs trade on impoverished Filipino families.
But he said he wanted to show the situation to a global audience from a more neutral standpoint, simply holding a mirror to the “true” situation in the Philippines, without taking sides.
“This series will show the two sides of the coin,” he said.
“The message is that we should all understand that there is a [drugs] situation in the Philippines… and now the government has really got very tough about it,” he explained.
“Of course this is a very delicate matter, this is not just your ordinary issue about human rights and corruption… People should realise that this [drugs] problem should be addressed,” Mr Mendoza added.
“I’m not saying that it should be addressed in the way that this government is dealing with it,” he said. “But people tend to criticise and to give their opinions without even going deeper into the issue.”
To some extent, the production will reflect Mr Mendoza’s own conflicting views. After his own family was affected by drugs, he said backed the president’s fight against the illegal trade.
Mr Mendoza believes Mr Duterte is often “misunderstood” and has directed his State of the Nation address to mixed reviews. But he denies that he is advocating “government propaganda.”
“I am pro-life, I am anti-violence and I am anti-killing,” he said.
The violence of the drugs wars has been universally condemned by human rights groups. Mr Duterte’s “murderous drugs war” had “wreaked havoc on the poorest segments of society,” said Amnesty International’s Rawya Rageh, who co-wrote a report on extrajudicial killings.
“Overall police impunity remains rife and there does not seem to be a real shift in policy indicative of a public health-based approach that respects human rights and the rule of law.”
Mr Mendoza said he hoped his filmwork would achieve change. “That’s the ultimate goal and the ultimate ambition in my lifetime, that I will be able to achieve that,” he said.
“And if not, at least I tried, at least we tried… people should start doing something concrete, something progressive, something they could share, for the improvement for the lives of Filipinos and also for the Philippines.”