Pulsating lights of reds and blues creep into the shadowy darkness as the movie commences, and as the scene focuses, so does the grotesque narrative that infiltrated that night, unravelling its atrocities in the talks and whispers of the people who bare witness to yet another dead body sprawled on the street. Grim and nightmarish, such is only the beginning of Alyx Ayn Arumpac’s bold debut documentary film, “Aswang”, a compelling vision of a dystopic social reality that is but the lives of the people most impacted by the Philippine government’s war on drugs or, more appropriately, war on drug users.
Having its world premiere last November 2019 at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), it has since won the Amnesty International award at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival held virtually last May, and has been screened in various human rights film festivals as well.
The experience of watching Aswang, at least for me, was both an emotional experience and a spiritual journey towards enlightenment. With the way Arumpac tailored the sequence from one subject to another while still maintaining heavy weight to each, inevitably stirs at least a tear from the empathic, but more so fury and a flame to action for the heart of the patriotic.
Just from the title itself, Aswang,—a gruesome mythological being in Filipino folklore who roams in the dark in search of human victims to prey upon and whose legend is used to instill fear amongst children—the film already starts off at a powerful note. By contextualizing the title unto the film’s setting, the metaphor reveals itself to be a clear reflection of the country’s current political climate. That the aswang that lingers in the shadow, the monster feared by the people, has morphed itself into a being unlike that of the lore, but is someone still capable of bringing dread and terror all the same: President Duterte and his band of police death squads.
Arumpac boldly paints a picture of the cruel streets of Manila, particularly the shanty towns drowning in poverty, as it transforms at night into a bloody landscape of deaths amongst thousands of people who are suspectedly involved in illegal drug activities. Guised in the so-called war on drugs of the current administration, the brute intensity of the state-sponsored killings made the sights of corpses and bloodied bodies sprawled in pavements a part of normalcy. The film even goes on to inform that since President Duterte’s advent to power in 2016, the death toll has risen to a thousand per month, with 31,232 death casualties exactly mentioned. “President Duterte kept his campaign promise,” remarks a character early on in the film, but by killing “the drug users and everybody involved in drugs.”
In order to give meaning to this chilling statistic, Arumpac drives the narrative towards the death of the young student, Kian delos Santos, tortured and killed by the police in August 2017. Arumpac then picks up on one of Kian’s young friends who is aliased as “Jo”, simply described as a street boy. Jo’s parents are also incarcerated, and as a result, he lives day-by-day fending for himself, only visiting his mom in prison every Saturday.
Amongst all the testimonies, Jo has the most touching. His stories of a monster in a river, playtimes with his friends on garbage sites, and his barefoot hikes in narrow alleys showed his innocence and vulnerability. Yet at the same time, the boy whose bliss manifested in superhero slippers and basketball jerseys spoke of truth in uncanny innocence, calling the police the “enemy” and playing chilling enactments of police brutality with his friends.
The film also revolves around a few selected subjects aside from Jo whose lives are entangled in a coherent stream of narrative that exposes the brutality of the so-called war on drugs: Brother Jun Santiago, a brave missionary who helps the bereaved family of the victims, harnessing his anger towards humanitarian works; a journalist crusading for justice; and a funeral parlor owner specializing in low-cost funeral services.
Scenes of the movie were predominantly filmed at night, rendering its colors to a muted metallic palette, as well as the inescapable neon lights of nocturnal urban life and the flashing red and blue of police vehicles. The rough camerawork of Tanya Haurylchyk and Arumpac, furthermore, gave a sense of simple realism, quite fitting for a film that brought forth their lenses directly to the actual lives of their subjects.
Most especially, the little details that magnified a compelling message of action for the watchers even served to strengthen the stance of dissent the movie has stood for: a mother pledging for life to find justice for her son; a cold pavement bathed in blood being swept away with water; and the lamenting of a bereaved brother whose allegiance to Duterte is marred by the death of his brother. Following this theme of dissent are other stories like that of a street protest against the administration that symbolically burned a visage of a demonic Duterte and the human rights fighters who freed a group of inmates imprisoned in a small, dark, foul-smelling cell hidden behind a filing cabinet.
Truly, Arumpac’s Aswang is as shocking as it is fierce, hitting hard without regards as to whatever may come. It is a piece of history and art that sends an appalling message even to an international audience not fully aware of the issues that continue to plague the Philippines.
Overall, the film communicates an outcry of justice against the so-called war on drugs which is nothing but a euphemism to a class war that goes against the urban poor of the country. In its very name lies the most problematic claim: the war on drugs has succeeded not in combating drugs, but rather eradicating lives and dreams.