Interview: Alexander Mora on Finding the Right Lens to Tell of the Terror in the Philippines in “The Nightcrawlers”

If a picture is worth a thousand words, Alexander Mora had his work cut out for him in making “The Nightcrawlers,” tracking the fearless photojournalists in the Philippines that have spent their evenings chasing down scenes of the countless murders that have taken place following the election of President Rodrigo Duterte and restoring the humanity to those that have been killed under the campaign promise of ridding the country of drug users and dealers. While the barrage of brutal imagery could be overwhelming, it isn’t in the hands of Mora, who captures the chaos of the moment by sticking to the side of the photojournalists such as Raffy Lerma, but creates an unusually dynamic and panoramic view of the tragic situation in Manila by widened the frame to show the impact of the killings on everyone from those who have lost loved ones to the vigilantes who have been emboldened by the president’s mandate to become enforcers.

Remarkably, “The Nightcrawlers” is Mora’s first film and while he had no prior experience behind the camera, his unique qualifications to take on such a daunting production reveal themselves when a background in human rights shines through in the compassion he shows to everyone caught in the vicious cycle of violence and his decision to never tie the narrative to a particular set of subjects, instead allowing the audience to get a feel for the Philippines in all its complexities that can seemingly be ascribed as much to cinematic instincts as the considerations he gave thought to in his studies to initially be an architect. Recently, “The Nightcrawlers,” which can be seen below, was shortlisted as one of 10 finalists for the Best Documentary Short Award at this year’s Oscars and the director spoke about his crash course in filmmaking and being thrust into the dangerous war on drugs in the Philippines.

How did this come about?

I graduated from architecture school and I was starting law school as well and Doireann [Maddock], my first producer on the film had spent some time in the Philippines, so when the drug war broke out, she was following it closely online. She came across this story of Rowena Tiamson, a young lady who had been murdered with a sign that had been left on her saying, “I Am a Drug User. Do Not Copy Me.” She was innocent and my producer was so moved by the injustice of that one story and thought that wasn’t getting over to the west about the drug war, so she recruited me to come along and direct this film because she knew I had experience working for the U.N. and human rights. I was hesitant at first because I had never directed anything before, but she was quite persistent, and with a background in architecture, she thought creatively I could be able to execute something, so eventually when I had a bit of time on my hands, so I figured I would try. The ambition [initially] was just to make a short, a 15-minute short about this very tragic story about this one girl using an iPhone, but things spiraled on from there.

Was that story what led you to the photojournalists?

Absolutely. For us, the access certainly preceded the intention in this film. The first person we reached out to was Raffy Lerma, who had a public profile because he’d taken this picture, the Pieta, which became the growing symbol of the anti-Duterte movement, and the president attacked Raffy in his State of the Union address, so Doireann reached out to him and we sat with him in Manila the first night we went there, just to get some orientation as to what was going on on the ground. He was very generous with his time in that first meeting, and because it was difficult to get a sense of what he was talking about [without seeing it], being on the front line as a photojournalist, he invited me to come along on a night shift with him [where he was] a star photojournalist for the main broadsheet at the time.

My mind was completely blown by the experience. Scores of people were murdered in the most harrowing ways, like high speed chases, and everything would be quiet until 9:30 pm and then all of a sudden, the calls would be coming in. It was just the most harrowing experience of my life, not only realizing the horrors that would be happening in the city, but also the danger these photojournalists were putting themselves in. So I realized very much that these journalists were at the forefront of the drug war as it was developing and changing, and that was an inflection point in our focus from wanting to tell this story to something of a broader scope.

The cameras obviously aren’t iPhones – were you in the photojournalists influential as far as the look of the film was concerned?

In terms of the aesthetic of it, it wasn’t so straight-forward. I had doggedly held onto this idea of an iPhone documentary for quite a long time and on reflection, I think that was primarily because I never made a film before. My final thesis at Yale was examining the confluence of architecture and film, so I used Maya to do parametric [design] and exploring how film could be used to explore architectural spaces, but I certainly never really held a proper film camera before, and the iPhone was something of a safety blanket. As long as we said we were making it with an iPhone, the ambition was quite modest.

I didn’t want to admit that if this was anything we were going to do on such a scale, having to use proper equipment and everything else, it would be such a heavy undertaking, and philosophically as well, it begs various questions of are we the right people to be telling this story? Who are you to be telling a story like this at this scale when you haven’t done anything like this before? So it was easy to say we were making an iPhone documentary and I think I held onto that even after it was quite clear it wasn’t a tenable thing to be doing. But we had to honor the access we’d gotten and Raffy specifically kept [saying], “You should really upgrade your equipment” because a lot of these killings would happen at night in these incredibly dimly lit, winding alleys through the back streets of Manila, and it was impossible to get the kind of light you needed anyway [for an iPhone], so technologically, it became clear very quickly that the equipment we had was subpar.
At first, we faced a very steep learning curve in terms of okay, what is the look of the film and what do we want to convey, so we had to do a lot of research into that, but also simultaneously I had to figure out how to shoot because I immediately had a sense of Manila was and the feeling that was there, so the question was how do you honestly portray that immediacy to someone who doesn’t know what Manila is like? It became quite clear very quickly that the urban fabric and the landscape of the city was very much a character in and of itself and it has almost a neo-noir lighting, just because of the gritty infrastructure in Manila that lends itself to these very directional lights and I felt in many ways, it really created an atmosphere that was somewhat akin to a cyberpunk film.

Was there any point the story changed direction on you?

That was what defined the project at every juncture. Obviously, when you’re shooting a film like this, control was something that had to be given up in a way because you’re shooting and at the same time trying to figure out what story you have and trying to figure out the narrative structure of what you’ve captured. It was incredibly difficult because we started making a story that was on a very small scope – we wanted to look at the tragedy of this one girl’s life and we ended up looking at the broader landscape of the drug war and questioning these bigger issues in and around the drug war by looking at both sides.

At what point did you realize you wanted to engage the vigilantes or have that side of it in the film?

No one knew where the killings were coming from at the beginning of the drug war, but there was a sense that there were everyday people that had taken up arms and, on the president’s mandate, decided to kill drug users and drug dealers. The president had at the time, and still has, north of a 75 percent approval rating for his policies and his administration, so it was clear that so many people supported these killings. Something I guess I was rather presumptuous in imagining was that obviously it was a self-evident truth that killing people who are drug users or drug dealers is probably not the best way for a democracy to act itself out. Due process is the cornerstone of any democracy and the Philippines, of course, calls itself a democracy, so we had to question ourselves and once we had access to the photojournalists that were very much at the epicenter of these killings on one side of it because they were firmly against it, it felt that a story about the drug war would be incomplete without looking at the other side of something that’s clearly a very complex issue in the Philippines and it felt that structuring that way would emulate that struggle that was and still continues to go on.

When it seems like you had a number of careers available to you to achieve social justice goals, was it fulfilling for you to make a film?

Yeah, obviously, I’ve had a longstanding interest in the law for various reasons and rights-based advocacy is something that I’ve done, working for the Human Rights Journal at Yale and in the U.N. for the Office of the High Commissioner, so I was very much passionate about it. At the same time, I was also really interested in the creative arts and have been ever since I was young, so I was trying to find a symbiosis of those two worlds and as you might imagine, there’s not too many avenues that allow you to synthesize both of those desires, so in some ways, this film coming along was quite fortuitous and [I worked with] a fantastic team. Obviously we’ve had fantastic support from NatGeo, from Carolyn Bernstein and Ryan Harrington, and everyone else who believed in the project, so it’s been a real communal effort.

And it’s an incredibly humbling experience, being able to tell such an important story and having these people entrust you to tell their stories. We were concerned if we were doing the right thing or telling it as honestly as we could, but in terms of what it has fulfilled, my hope is it could raise the profile of the work the Nightcrawlers are doing and continue to do because this is such an urgent story that continues. A few days ago, the president’s office asked about our project and questioned the veracity of the facts in the film and with the continuing support for the drug war in the Philippines, it’s quite clear this is an issue that’s still ongoing. We’re in touch with the Nightcrawlers on a regular basis and the killings are still happening, so to be able to tell this story to the world is something that I’ve found profound satisfaction in and I would really consider it an honor to be able to tell other original stories in the future.

“The Nightcrawlers” is now streaming on National Geographic here.

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