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A Filipino Jail-Bird’s-Eye View: Netflix’s 'Happy Jail'

Noted Fil-Am filmmaker Michele Josue came to the Philippines to create a docuseries that would update the world on Cebu's dancing inmates who went viral in 2007—but little did she know she would be getting involved with so much more

Michele Josue is a documentary film writer and director whose Matt Shepherd Is a Friend of Mine (2015) still stands as one of the strongest, most touching films ever made about LGBTQ issues and US hate crimes. In 1998, University of Wyoming student Matt Shepherd was beaten up, tied to a fence, and left to die—and just because he was gay. Years later, Michele, who was a childhood friend of Matt’s, revisited the crime; and with exclusive photos and rare video footage, produced a documentary that would move even the person with a heart of stone to tears and outrage.

Born to Filipino immigrant parents, Michele had watched the 2007 YouTube video of the Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center (CPDRC) dancing inmates; and turned her eyes (lens?) in 2016 to the Philippines, set to create a series that began as an “exploration of the dance program that birthed the ‘Thriller’ video.” For Michele, it was an opportunity to “portray the inmates as representative of the Filipino spirit … emblematic of the Filipino people’s love of music, dance, and performance.”

Entitled with rich irony as Happy Jail, the series dropped on Netflix August 14; and it’s evident that as events overtook her film crew, Michele captured so much more than a penal dancing program aimed to uplift the prisoners. The docuseries now stands as a searing, incisive portrait of our penal system, and in a larger sense, how Justice is served—hot or cold?—in this country of ours. For the global audience, I’m very curious to see how it will be received. Netflix gave me the opportunity to preview the series, and email interview questions to Michele.

Over the five episodes, via imaginative storytelling, editing, and choice of footage, we  are treated to what has to be called real life teleserye drama. Right as filming began, a congressional inquiry was being initiated by Cebu’s ex-Governor, then Congresswoman, on the possible abuse of authority by the then Governor’s appointment of an ex-convict as Special Consultant to the CPDRC. This ex-con is Marco Toral, and he quickly becomes a central element to why this docuseries is so engrossing. The footage of the inmates, their confessions, and readiness to talk to the camera do bring us within the walls of the CPDRC in a real and visceral manner; but Toral, a charismatic “tough guy,” had to be a godsend to Michele. 

As she recalls, “Marco was an open book, incapable of not being himself, exactly the same whether the cameras were on or off.” Is he a flawed hero, a tragic figure, or brazen opportunist? Or is he all of the above? Facing administrative pressure to deliver, having to cope with a prison break, defending himself from political and media attacks, Toral becomes a fascinating figure to watch.

Happy Jail is cinema verité filmmaking—an inspiring case of capturing the story unfolding for us in real time. Again, Michele says it was a matter of being: “Fully present and flexible, and having to go with the flow.” Thanks to the smart editing, there are even cliffhanger moments at some of the episodes come to a close. 

Among the inmates interviewed for footage texture, there’s Rico Montemayor, who acts like a guide to the hard realities of prison life. And I loved how the scenes of him talking about why he’s in prison for murder, are intercut with scenes of the in-house jail Bingo—making Rico’s “testimony” that much more chilling. 

Others may write and give you a blow-by-blow account of the episodes, but I think that’s tantamount to giving you spoilers. The beauty of this docuseries is in the thrill of discovery. If one has kept abreast of local news, one may even be aware of how this all played out—but like the limited drama series Chernobyl, it doesn’t really matter if we know how it all ends—it’s the story unfolding, and our being there at ground zero level that keeps us glued to the screen.

So how will an international viewership react to this 5-episodes series? Will it be a fatalistic look at the Filipino justice system, a celebration of the indomitable human spirit, or an indictment of our antiquated penal system? For Michele, “We all poured our heart and soul into this project, and I hope that comes across. Ultimately, I hope viewers see Happy Jail as a complex and nuanced portrait of the human spirit.”

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