“Aswang,” an award-winning documentary that takes an unflinching look at how the Duterte administration’s war on illegal drugs has upended the lives of ordinary people here and killed thousands, gets its name from a mythical monster in Philippine cultural lore.
The film by Filipina director Alyx Ayn Arumpac tells the story largely through the eyes of a small boy whose teenage friend died in the crackdown. The documentary was streamed and viewed by nearly half a million Filipinos when it made its debut in the Philippines earlier this month.
“Myths and old tales seem to have come to life,” says a trailer on YouTube to Arumpac’s 85-minute film. “Night after night, the darkness unravels bodies face down on the streets.”
On Sunday, the director took part in an online discussion with Philippine human rights activists and journalists about the making of the documentary, which won Arumpac the International Federation of Film Critics (FIPRESCI) Prize at the 2019 International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam.
“The film offered nothing new. It was not an exposé, it’s not an investigative work. We were surprised, nevertheless. Everyone was talking about it,” she said during the discussion hosted by organizers of Daang Dokyu, a Filipino film festival that showcases documentaries, and Dakila, a local NGO that brings together artists and activists.
Arumpac started working on “Aswang” in 2016, the year the Duterte administration launched the crackdown on narcotics after Rodrigo Duterte was elected as president that June on a campaign pledge to rid the country of the scourge of drug addiction and trafficking.
International human rights groups and the United Nations have criticized the now four-year-old crackdown for its brutality, but government officials have defended it as necessary for law and order in the country. President Duterte once said that the crackdown was his way of saving the future of the Filipino youth.
Since the campaign began in mid-2016, Philippine police have claimed more than 6,000 deaths of suspected drug dealers and addicts during anti-narcotics operations and raids. Rights groups, however, have said that the number could be four times higher, with many extrajudicial killings carried out by pro-government vigilantes.
Government officials did not immediately respond to requests from BenarNews for comments on this report.
For the first two years while making her film, Arumpac joined a group of photojournalists who documented the war on drugs night after night on the streets of Metro Manila. Back then Arumpac did not have a day job, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise because it gave her more time to focus on filming scenes from the drug war and its aftermath, she said.
Unlike foreign filmmakers who came to the Philippines with crews in tow, Arumpac mostly filmed her project on her own, quietly shooting footage with camera in hand.
Funding was an initial problem, but the director said this did not deter her from carrying on with her work in tracking and documenting killings from the drug war. Arumpac said she used her own money and borrowed cameras from friends.
It would take four years before Filipinos would glimpse the rawness of the images that the filmmaker painstakingly captured through her lens.
“I had to stop five minutes into the film. I was so struck by the power. I couldn’t describe how I felt. I had to stop watching it because it was too powerful. I had to stop to digest it before I proceeded,” said Che-che Lazaro, a multi-awarded journalist and veteran documentarian who helped moderate Sunday’s discussion.
Arumpac said she also wanted viewers to share the feelings she experienced while filming scenes.
“It was made by trying to show you how I felt while doing this coverage for two years. Using the audio-visual powers of cinema, we attempted to show the viewers how I felt while I was there observing and witnessing everything,” the director said.
“One of the major problems was access and the idea that you’re a Filipino and you live here. You have to consider everyone’s safety,” she said.
The film’s title comes from the Aswang, a monster from Filipino lore that hunts and kills people at night.
The idea of naming her work after the mythological predator came to the director when Arumpac saw her first images of people slain in the drug war.
“Precisely because I thought the killers were sending a message. Sometimes the killings were too blatant. You’d think it’s staged because it was too brutal and violent. You’d see pictures of heads with tape wrapped around them. You’d see things stuffed inside their mouths. The manner by which they died was too brutal, it was stripped of dignity,” Arumpac said.
An unconventional film
“Aswang” veers from traditional documentary storytelling. There are no talking heads and experts appearing on camera or in voiceovers to make sense of what the viewer is seeing.
The characters and sequence of events are not fully explained. Instead, the film uses a “very creative” narrative by tapping into Philippine mythology to explain current events, said Nerissa Balce, a professor at Stony Brook University in New York, who participated in Sunday’s online forum.
“Rather than the traditional form of documentary films that used experts … or what film makers might call talking heads, Arumpac doesn’t use that but explains the horror of Filipino life under Duterte’s drug war though a Philippine myth,” Balce said.
“In the documentary, the myth of the Aswang is an allegory, a symbolic language or metaphor to the violence committed by that Duterte government against the poor,” Balce added.
A real-life character who features prominently in the film is Jomari, 10, a Filipino boy who was left to fend for himself after both his parents were detained on drug charges.
In 2017, Jomari’s teenage friend, student Kian Lloyd delos Santos, fell victim to rogue policemen who were enforcing the crackdown on illegal drugs. Kian’s death sparked widespread protested here, and was a clear case of mistaken identity. Three policemen were later convicted of murder in connection with his killing.
“We often say in the media that issues last only nine days or two weeks. But Aswang showed us that these events, this tragedy, have a human dimension. The [victims] were not just mere statistics,” Lourd de Veyra, a Philippine journalist and musician who helped lead the online discussion about Arumpac’s film.