Directed by Alyx Ayn Arumpac
It feels right that first-time documentarian Alyx Ayn Arumpac should present the spectre of Duterte’s bloody drug war as a bogeyman. In Aswang, which won the critics’ FIPRESCI Award when it premiered last November at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), the director provides hushed, intermittent narration about the catchall Philippine monster—which covers everything from shapeshifters to vampires to the infamous manananggal—as images of bodies sprawled on pavements unspool onscreen. The myth of the aswang has always been used to bring pesky kids to heel; in Aswang, it is the government that has terrorized the citizenry into obeisance.
Not that you’ll see much of the government in this full-length documentary. No government officials are interviewed, and Duterte himself is portrayed only as an effigy to be burnt. Arumpac’s mission is to take you straight to the ground where the carnage occurs, on the streets where the battlefronts in the administration’s war on drugs are drawn every night. Or more specifically, as one activist who runs a morgue for John Doe corpses puts it in the opening minutes of the film, a war on drug users—not on drug lords. As per this concerned citizen’s speech, his funeral parlor once used to process around one corpse a month; in the months after Duterte’s ascension to Malacañang, it started to receive around a thousand bodies a day. By December 2016, based on real numbers data, the running total of John Does being brought in had ballooned to 31,232.
The statistic is a sobering one, and fairly anonymous. Aswang doesn’t care to identify its protagonists or provide names to the people whose traumas and tragedies are portrayed onscreen. That’s because the victims of Duterte’s war on drugs are themselves nameless. They are the poor huddled in cramped hovels whose faces are taped up then dumped on the streets by shadowy death squads. They are the weeping mothers who lament their beautiful sons’ murders. They are brothers whose pent-up anger—amazingly—doesn’t stop them from declaring, “I am for Duterte but what they did to my brother is wrong.”
Sometimes a case will flare up and ignite momentary indignation, such as the 2017 slaying of 17-year-old Kian Loyd delos Santos, whose dying words to the police were a plea to be spared because he had a test the following day. And it is at Kian’s wake in Caloocan that Aswang introduces us to the documentary’s putative hero: a precocious little boy identified only as Jomari, who raps with his friends along garbage-strewn estuaries and stages mock police raids using scavenged scraps of wood as weapons. Jomari is another kind of orphan to the drug war—both his parents have been jailed on charges of drug use—and so he is left to wander the streets alone, becoming our de facto guide.
Halfway through the documentary, Jomari drops out of sight, and Aswang gains suspenseful mileage on the question of whether both the mythological aswang of our collective nightmares and the metaphorical Aswang of the documentary had finally coalesced and claimed him. As Arumpac and her crew set out to find him, they interview a faceless woman who describes in minute detail her time being imprisoned in a “secret cell” at the back of a Manila police station, a dank, narrow space hidden behind a cabinet where she and fellow detainees allege policemen kidnapped them and kept them without charges, extorting thousands of pesos from them in exchange for their release.
You may also like:
But, as the documentary points out, neither this bombshell discovery in April 2017 nor Kian’s homicide the following August were enough to rouse the population’s anger, nor put a dent in Duterte’s popularity. (An eyebrow-raising radio report once placed the public support for his drug war at 85 percent).
It’s a lot to take in, which probably explains why other documentaries like The Kingmaker falters when it tries to shoehorn Duterte’s drug war into other topics. There is just so much violence, so much paranoia, so much heartbreak, even Aswang’s harrowing 84-minute running time can’t possibly unpack everything about this waking nightmare.
But what Aswang does right is frame its subjects in impeccable aesthetics. Tanya Haurylchyk’s stark cinematography benefits from Arumpac’s callbacks to Brocka’s bleak palette in such social dramas as Maynila Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag, and editors Fatima Bianchi and Anne Fabini keep things moving at an unremitting pace. And of course, there is the genius of Arumpac’s narrative gambit: the aswang has long been used to terrorize and lull—Aswang asks us if we will ever wake up.
Aswang will be available to stream starting Saturday, July 11, until Sunday, July 12. Visit aswangmovie.com, the film’s Facebook page facebook.com/aswangmovie or the film’s Twitter account twitter.com/aswangmovie at around 6pm Saturday for the link to watch it for free.
Photos from the official website