Film/TV

Interview: Fil-Am filmmaker Michele Josue talks about hope, empathy and redemption

For Michele Josue, there's more to Cebu's dancing inmates than their viral performances.

A decade or so ago, the Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center (CPDRC) burst into the international scene when footage of around 1,500 of its inmates dancing the choreography to Michael Jackson’s hit Thriller found its way to the video sharing platform YouTube, where it garnered 58 million in total views.

What followed was a blizzard of attention: the inmates’ Thriller performance made it to the pages of Time magazine in 2007; the prison and its inmates were name-checked in the popular musical drama GLEE; and in 2010, the dancing inmates were tapped to perform a special number for the global launch of Michael Jackson’s This Is It DVD.

Despite the overwhelming attention given to the prison’s many inmates however, one question remains unanswered: Once the music stops, what is life really like for those who live behind the prison complex’s bars?

That is the same question that Filipina-American filmmaker Michele Josue — best known perhaps for her Emmy Award-winning documentary Matt Shepard Is a Friend of Mine — dares to ask in Happy Jail, a five-part documentary series about the lives of CPDRC’s dancing inmates that she shot over the course of three years.

GIST, courtesy of Netflix, got to talk to Michele recently. Here, our conversation:

What drew you to the story of the Dancing Inmates?

I just loved the YouTube video of them dancing to Thriller, and I watched it over and over. It seemed to me to be a truly Filipino story, and it became a dream of mine to make a film about them.

In many ways Happy Jail serves as a reintroduction of sorts for the Dancing Inmates to the rest of the world, a decade or so after they first went viral. What is it about them that you want people to know more about?

While the Dancing Inmates made headlines around the world, for the most part, the coverage was superficial. Internationally-speaking, they were kind of made out to be this exotic novelty, but I was interested in looking a bit deeper, past the performance and spectacle. Through Happy Jail, I’d like people to learn about the inmates as real people who choose to dance as a means of hope, connection, and even survival.

What was it like during the filming? What were the biggest challenges you experienced during filming?

Filming was so different from one day to the next, and it became impossible to anticipate what was going to happen to Marco, to the jail, let alone prepare. So our biggest challenges had to do with keeping up with these huge changes that were happening at a dizzying pace. 

IMAGE via NETFLIX

What was the experience like, meeting the inmates?

For the most part, the CPDRC inmates are remarkably friendly and eager to make friends. The inmates would always offer us a place to sit with them, their food, even though they didn’t have much, and even one inmate walked up to me and, without a word, handed me 50 pesos. As a crew, we all were so touched by their openness and generosity. 

Marco Toral is a very polarizing personality. What is he like in real life?

Marco is incredibly candid and is exactly the same person whether the cameras are on or off. So who he is in Happy Jail is exactly who he is in real life. Marco is a disrupter of the system and practices a type of radical empathy for the inmates who I think remind him of himself and his past life. 

After becoming a viral sensation because of their “Thriller” performance, the Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center and its dancing inmates have drawn both praise and criticism, with some praising the jail’s program as revolutionary, and some dismissing it as exploitative. What are your thoughts on this? How did you approach this matter?

In our series, we laid out the history of the dancing inmates in addition to the praise and criticism of the dancing program as far back as 2007. However, given that this show is about CPDRC and giving a voice to the inmates and their experience, we chose to convey what the inmates themselves thought about it. While I can’t speak for all the thousands of CPDRC inmates, inmates like Marlon, Evelyn, Marvin, and Allan genuinely love dancing and view it as a means of hope, redemption, and even survival inside the jail. 

IMAGE via NETFLIX

The Philippines’ prison and criminal justice system are very sensitive topics, especially under the current administration. What is it about them that you want to show in your film? What are the misconceptions you want to debunk? Do you hope that this documentary will raise more awareness about prisoners’ rights and the criminal justice system?

I would like the viewing public to learn that the vast majority of inmates inside CPDRC have not yet been convicted of their accused crime. Most of the inmates have been detainees for drug use or possession inside the already overwhelmed jail system. The justice system moves slow. It’s an untenable situation, and we hope Happy Jail brings awareness to it in a humanistic way. 

* * *

Michele Josue’s Happy Jail is now streaming globally on Netflix.

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