In 2007, an unlikely video went viral. Originating from the Cebu province of the Philippines, it featured a group of inmates (and even a “ladyboy”) dressed in those signature orange suits, dancing along to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” The grainy video became a hit, and was hailed as one of the first viral Internet videos, ever. And if you, dear reader, were somehow able to escape watching it during the late aughts, that’s a minor miracle considering that the “Thriller” video currently has over 58 million views on YouTube.
Filmmaker Michele Josue, who at the time was best known for her work “Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine,” was one of those millions who watched those dancing inmates 10 years ago. She was instantly hooked. She had to find out the origin story behind “Filipino Thriller.” “I had so many questions: How was this even possible?” Josue says. “I was just marveling at how they were dancing all in unity and with such joy despite the fact that they were in jail. It just stuck with me all these years.”
So, Josue set out to make a documentary. Released Aug. 14 on Netflix, “Happy Jail” turns a keen eye on the Cebu Province Detention and Rehabilitation Center. But what started out as a film meant to portray life behind bars turned into a dramatic exploration of the real world ramifications of the Philippine Drug War. She didn’t initially intend for it to become a docuseries, but found enough material to divvy up her content into five episodes. “The timing of our filming just happened to be at the onset of the War on Drugs,” Josue says. “So many things happened during our time there. Right away we saw this huge influx of people surrendering themselves into jails like CPDRC because they didn’t want to be killed in the streets.”
While they were filming, Josue and her crew stayed in a hotel in downtown Cebu and regularly made the half-hour trip up into the mountains to film at the jail. Sometimes they even slept over for a night or two. In the context of American prisons, it’s hard to imagine how inmates would react to a documentary crew filming their daily lives. But, keep in mind, these folks have been famous for more than 10 years, so the presence of Josue and her team didn’t shake things up too much. “The dancing inmates are quite savvy and used to journalists from all over the world coming with cameras,” Josue says. “We tried to really relate to them. We built that trust and rapport by spending a lot of time there, relating to them as human beings and showing interest in their lives outside of the jail. Things that they were thinking about and doing other than the dance numbers.”
Josue’s ability to sympathetically portray those personal stories serves as the engine behind the heart of “Happy Jail.” Despite all the bleak events that occur over the course of the series, namely the decisions of politicians influencing the lives and fates of the inmates, it’s obvious that the series is a love letter—not to the penitentiary, but to the people who inhabit it. “I hope that [audiences] see the show and gain some inspiration from it, and they’re able to see how powerful hope, faith and community can be,” Josue says. “The inmates are able to carve out a community and genuine joy, through dance and through their relationships with one another. Ultimately, I hope people are inspired by the Filipino spirit in general, by how strong it is and how it can flourish in dire circumstances.”
This article will appear in Character Media’s October 2019 issue. Check out the e-magazine here.