The rise of Netflix as content producer has been phenomenal over the past few years and part of their success story has been their ability to provide compelling films or series, both in drama and documentary, that very much seem to appeal to what viewers want to see. This success has not been without its controversy, however, with hit shows such as Narcos being criticised for both factual inaccuracies and a glorification of the drug trade, and documentaries such as Making A Murderer and 13 Reasons Why slammed for glamorising or normalising murder and suicide respectively. A new show available for streaming from this month has also created something of a storm in a very short period time.
Amo is the first show from the Philippines to get a global release via Netflix. Like Narcos, it’s a show that focuses on the drug trade, but this time in contemporary Manila. Created by award-winning director Brillante Mendoza, the first season is a 13-part series featuring short, fast-moving episodes shot in a jerky, fly-on-the-wall documentary style that are not for the faint-hearted. Within days of its release, the series attracted a lot of attention and criticism for a number of different reasons. But what of the show itself?
The story centres around high school student Joseph, who starts out as a low level drug runner but then gradually gets pulled into a greater level or organised crime. As the series progresses the focus switches to some corrupt cops, Camilo (Joseph’s uncle) and Rod, and a kidnapping plot. The feeling here is that Mendoza wants to demonstrate the problem of the drug war in the Philippines is complex and multi-faceted. Whilst it makes compelling viewing, there are gaps in the story line and it’s not really clear what motivates some of the characters to act the way they do. The final episode very much leaves the door open for a second season, and it’ll be interesting to see if Netflix take up that option.
So what is it about the show that has kicked up such as storm? Well, firstly Mendoza is an open supporter of President Rodrigo Duterte (in fact he shot and directed the President’s State of the Nation address in 2016 and 2017) and is also against illegal drugs. This has led to accusations that the series is little more than a propaganda exercise validating Duterte’s much publicised and war on drugs and the wave of violence that has accompanied it, something that the director refutes.
“I have this feeling that because I am doing a series against illegal drugs that people are prejudging it,” he said in an interview with the UK newspaper The Telegraph.
In the same interview he defends the series citing that the drugs problem in the Philippines is a very real issue that cannot be swept under the carpet.
“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.”
Whilst Narcos (which drew its own wave of criticism) is based on a dark period of Colombian history a quarter of a century ago, Amo is very much about the here and the now. The war on drugs in the Philippines has been hard-hitting and widespread and, depending on which source you quote, has resulted in anything from 7,000 and 20,000 deaths (some shootings carried out by the police, others extra-judicial executions) since the beginning of the campaign in July 2016.
With the war on drugs still in full swing and Mendoza a vocal supporter of the President, it’s hardly surprising that these accusations have surfaced, and there have been numerous calls for the show to be cancelled, including an open letter to the Netflix CEO from both the Asian and International Networks of People Using Drugs (ANPUD and INPUD), and a petition from the mother of Raymart Siapo, a disabled 19 year-old who was one of the many victims of the crackdown.
In addition to the propaganda charge, there have also been suggestions that Amo glamorises and glorifies the drug trade and the crackdown by the authorities. While it’s understandable that those directly affected in what’s been dubbed a humanitarian crisis are affronted that their tragedy has been dramatised for entertainment, there’s little in the way of evidence to support these suggestions. There are absolutely no heroes in this show, and the matter-of-fact presentation of the various scenes as the story unfolds makes it virtually impossible to connect or sympathise with any of the characters. The show gives outsiders some insights into life in Manila at various points on the socio-economic scale, but less in the way of insight into its people.
A third criticism levelled at Mendoza (and something that has been said about some of his other work) is that Amo is basically peddling ‘poverty porn’, using images of slum life in Manila as a canvas onto which he paints his story. The use of real locations rather than studio sets gives a stark portrayal of life is like for a very large number of people in the Philippine capital and is perhaps eye-opening for those who have never been to the country. Like the acclaimed Al Jazeera documentary The Slum, Amo takes you inside different neighbourhoods and doesn’t sugar-coat the realities of then life of the poorest, but are the poverty porn arguments valid? Literature and film have visited similar themes for a very long time, and no doubt this will continue. Building a story around poverty and social issues, as writers such as Charles Dickens and Emile Zola or directors such as Ken Loach have done is quite different from celebrities jetting into a famine-stricken or war-torn zone for a photo opportunity.
Stories have the power to last and can help effect change, and in his Telegraph interview, Mendoza expressed a desire for his film work to become a force for change. Whether he can achieve that with Amo remains to be seen. Despite the calls for the show to be withdrawn Netflix argue that viewers have a choice whether to watch it or not, and you get the feeling that any decisions around whether to commission a second season will be determined by how well the show is received with its subscribers.
Ultimately, though where Amo fails in its ambition to bring about change is that it focuses solely on the ‘what’ of the drug problem and the police response, and there is no examination of the root causes of the problem or any suggestions of an alternative way to address it. There’s a snapshot of what’s happening, but no judgement. In trying to present a neutral viewpoint, Mendoza has perhaps unwittingly avoided the heart of the matter.