Netflix invites you to venture inside the walls of the dancing prison.

It’s safe to say that Netflix has taken us to some pretty strange places over the years. 

What kind of viewer are you? The kind who goes with the flow and watches the big shows or the kind to seek out the more obscure and strange titles the streaming service has to offer? You have stuff like Orange Is the New Black, Stranger Things and Mindhunter which attract mass attention; perhaps word of mouth made you give those shows a try to begin with. 

On the other hand, there’s the stuff that isn’t quite so widely spoken about. Netflix has delivered some great lesser-known content, such as the 2018 martial-arts masterclass The Night Comes For Us, and actually, some striking, smaller titles can often begin to generate discussion which bleeds into the popular discussion. 

Perhaps the most recent to do so is Happy Jail. 

Happy Jail on Netflix

Now, Happy Jail isn’t normally the sort of thing you’d see receiving this level of attention; similar titles have fallen between the cracks many times before. Nevertheless, this original documentary series has caught audiences at a good time. Why? Because we can’t seem to get enough of documentaries at the moment. 

Netflix has been sure to capitalise on the non-fiction craze of late, churning out a range of series and films, to varying degrees of success. Although it isn’t one to give out viewing figures, Happy Jail appears to be receiving optimistic attention from subscribers, and let’s face it, how can you ignore it after reading the synopsis. 

Over the course of five episodes, we’re invited into the unfamiliar environment of the Philippine jail CPDRC in Cebu province. This facility’s claim to fame was an undeniably impressive yet utterly bizarre 2007 viral video; it showed convicts dancing to Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’… yes, really. Turning its attention away from the video and onto the inmates and prison itself, we become immersed in a world of danger and intrigue. 

Who is Marco Toral?

We’ve seen plenty of prison movies in which a character will say something along the lines of “I’m gonna run this prison”. However, they don’t mean to actually run it; Marco Toral, on the other hand, managed to just that. 

It was actually CPDRC’s former security advisor – Byron F. Garcia – who kickstarted the Dancing Inmates program which birthed the aforementioned viral video. Yet, when he left the facility in 2015, it was Marco Toral who stepped in to tackle the role. This provides the controversy of Happy Jail and indeed CPDRC because as noted by Refinery29, he was arrested in 2002 for drug trafficking. 

Despite being given a life sentence, Cebu Governor Hilario Davide III hired him for the job. He was actually released in 2009 after seven years, but even so, you wouldn’t exactly consider him the right choice to take control. Over the documentary, he expresses his ability to empathise, understand and communicate with the inmates, because he ultimately was one after all. 

Much of the documentary centres upon that pivotal decision to put Marco in charge, and the effects that choice has had on the prison since, which is infamous for drug trafficking. 

Thoughts from Michele Josue 

In an interview Inquirer.Net, documentarian and filmmaker Michele Josue said of Marco: “I was immediately fascinated by Marco’s story and the fact that a former convict was in charge of the jail. He was a disrupter, and his radical approach is one we wouldn’t see here in the United States.”

Continuing to discuss her experiences there, she said: “Marco and his staff wore T-shirts with the motto ‘Seasoned by Stress’ and I feel that is an accurate summary of what I witnessed of them at the jail. Marco and Bobby were at the helm of an untenable situation.”

It appears the documentary began life as an exploration of the prison’s reputation for dancing inmates, but once there, so much began to reveal itself to the crew. The results are fascinating, and importantly, they’re ready to view on Netflix when you are. 

In other news, what is the Normani Challenge?