It’s 2007, and if you were using the internet you probably saw the video of orange-clad prisoners dancing en masse to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”. It was one of the world’s first viral YouTube videos, and has been viewed over 60 million times.
The inmate dancers were from the Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center (CPDRC) in the Philippines, where the inmate exercise program includes choreographed routines to pop music. Filmmaker (and Filipina-American) Michele Josue ’97 recalls seeing the video 13 years ago and “felt a familiar Pinoy pride and immediately recognized that this extraordinary program was perfectly emblematic of the Filipino people and our love of music, dance, and performance,” she says. “The fact that this was all taking place inside a jail was also fascinating to me. I was really excited about exploring a story that had this provocative combination of grit and complexity but also these wholesome elements of song and dance.” Michele spent nearly three years creating Happy Jail, a Netflix series that does a deep-dive into the CPDRC. We sat down with Michele to ask her more about the series.
How did you get involved with Netflix? Did you initially see it as a documentary or did you always see it as a series?
Our agent for [Michele’s award-winning 2013 film] Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine brought Happy Jail to Netflix’s attention fairly early on in the process. We definitely looked to Netflix as the ultimate, ideal home for Happy Jail, given the groundbreaking and diverse content they’re known for. So it was a dream come true to have Netflix acquire the show and to have the opportunity to share this important story with audiences all over the world.
Initially, Happy Jail began as a straightforward portrait of the CPDRC jail. But little did we know that our project would take a surprising turn and deepen in ways I never could have anticipated. Filming of the series began in 2016 when President Duterte took office and his Drug War began. In real time, our cameras captured how CPDRC was thrust into a new era of controversy and criticism. So we had to pivot from documenting the CPDRC’s dancing program to truthfully bearing witness to this monumental time in the jail and the Philippines’ history. We had to completely surrender to what was happening, and just adapt and follow the narrative as it was unfolding. The unpredictability and pace was a worthwhile challenge. That's how Happy Jail ended up becoming a series.
What has the response been in the Philippines? And with the Filipino diaspora?
The response to the show in the Philippines and among the Filipino-American community has been overwhelmingly positive. As the first Netflix documentary series filmed entirely in the Philippines, Happy Jail is a uniquely Filipino story told by a Filipina filmmaker that will help usher in more Filipino content into the mainstream. Since premiering on Netflix, the series has given viewers in 190 countries a window into Filipino culture and the untenable situation occurring in its prisons. As evidenced by the positive reviews and countless, heartfelt messages, there’s been a massive outpouring of support for the inmates and the jail officials who strive to improve the inmates’ quality of life. Beyond a renewed interest in the Dancing Inmates, Happy Jail has enlightened people worldwide and allowed them to connect to this crisis in a more human way. I hope the impact of Happy Jail is one that is global and long-lasting.
I think this pandemic has shown us all how tenuous everything is and how, as I’ve heard someone say recently, the one truth of life is its impermanence. So lately, I’m really reflecting on the power of my voice, what I want my legacy to be, and what good I can contribute to the world.
I've been reflecting on how my formative years at TASIS laid the groundwork for who I am today and who I am as a storyteller. I know that in many ways TASIS inspired in me a passion for using our diverse voices to help shape a more compassionate, empathic world. Since the death of George Floyd and the subsequent swell of support for the Black Lives Matter movement, that passion has grown exponentially.
So in terms of what's next, I've been working to advocate for real change in my community and in the film industry. Artistically-speaking, I’m developing new documentary and narrative projects that speak to my authentic experience and point of view as a Filipina-American woman of color. I'm looking to transition into narrative film, and I've been writing a script inspired by my own family and what it's like growing up Filipina-American. I've also always wanted to make a film based on my experience at TASIS. In fact, that was what my TASIS Senior Banquet speech was about.* So of course that's a project that is close to my heart that I'm excited to bring to fruition.
*Editor’s note: Michele’s speech and her pursuit of film studies inspired Lynn Fleming Aeschliman to hire her to make the film Pushing All the Buttons, using lots of old footage and interviewing Mrs. Fleming. This film is still well worth seeing! Watch at tasis.ch/history.