Movies & TV

How Happy Jail Taught its Fil-Am Director About Her Heritage

What began as a simple exploration of a prison took on greater purpose as filming began.
IMAGE NETFLIX
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There’s more to the Filipino story than meets the eye. As Netflix’s five-part docuseries Happy Jail proved, the joy perpetuated by the dancing inmates of Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center (CPDRC) was a coping mechanism for the troubling issues brewing under the surface. In the same way, appreciating the Filipino identity requires understanding its joys as well as its struggles. This is what Happy Jail’s director, Michele Josue, accomplished as the documentary proved to be more than just a project for her and her team. 

Josue, a Filipino-American daughter of immigrants, is a critically acclaimed director whose debut film Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine won her a Daytime Emmy Award for “Outstanding Special Class Special” in 2016. Following the success of the film, Josue turned to her roots to find her next big story: CPDRC.

Photo by NETFLIX.
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On a personal level, making Happy Jail gave Josue the chance to spend more time in the land of her parents, reconnecting with Filipino people, culture, and heritage. Growing up in the U.S., Josue admits that she experienced “a level of disconnect” from her Filipino heritage, as is the case with many immigrant families. But as she grew older, that disconnect drove her desire to understand and discover her identity as a Filipino—which was strengthened all the more by working on Happy Jail.

“Seeing the inmates dance and create happiness and community for themselves while inside the jail helped me to understand my heritage and even myself a bit more,” shared Josue with Esquire Philippines. The support from her parents was also invaluable as they assisted with the Cebuano translations of the series.

Photo by NETFLIX.
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The project, which began as a simple exploration of the dancing inmates program, took on a greater purpose when the current administration’s controversial drug war began. It was an unanticipated turn of events, and the production crew had no choice but to roll with the punches.

“Our goal became to truthfully and respectfully document how CPDRC and everyone in its orbit were affected in this new era,” explained Josue.

As Josue explains, the harsh truth is that many inmates at CPDRC are innocent or have not yet been proven guilty. “Technically speaking, they are detainees and not presumed criminals,” said Josue. “So it was paramount to myself and my team to always keep that in mind. It wasn’t our job to cast moral judgment on anyone—we were at CPDRC as storytellers and documentarians.” 

A lot has changed in the jail since 2016 when the crew was last here. Marco Toral, the jail’s strongman consultant, has not returned, and the jail is now under new management following the 2019 midterm elections, but one thing has remained constant: the lesson that “everyone is deserving of dignity and respect.”

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Happy Jail is now streaming on Netflix.

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About The Author
Anri Ichimura
Staff Writer, Esquire Philippines
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