‘Aswang,’ Duterte, and the horror in political cinema

enablePagination: false
maxItemsPerPage: 10
maxPaginationLinks: 10

The feat of “Aswang” lies in the searing clarity and exactness of this correlation with the current political climate. Screencap from ASWANG/OFFICIAL WEBSITE

Editor's note: The views expressed in this essay are the author’s.

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — On the thirteenth of October in 2016, twenty-two minutes past midnight, I was on a public jeepney and witnessed a man on the sidewalk get shot five times. A motorcycle sped fast before us, and the person sitting behind, fully covered from head to toe, pulled a gun and fired, in such a merciless precision that there was no time wasted between the discharge of bullets. In less than five seconds a life deemed dispensable ended.

The jeepney driver, for reasons that only a mix of shock and confusion could explain, stayed put to pick up new passengers. Fearing for our own lives, we shouted at him to get moving. We looked at each other, knowing full well what just happened, and understood. Many of us came from our respective workplaces, and the last thing we’d expect to add to our physical and mental exhaustion was a bloody murder right in our faces. As the vehicle trudged forward, I took a snap of the crime scene from the window; and the blurred photo, captioned, and shared with trembling hands, was posted immediately on my Twitter account. It was the only rational action I could think of — to tell people, to make it matter.

The impulse to share an experience in real time comes from the exigencies of social media, over the years becoming not only the extension of twenty-first century life but a defining feature of it, in which proximity plays a huge part and carries with it the responsibility of documentation. The awareness of “being there” is supposed to account for the truth, and our bearing witness to a crime, in a sensible world, ought to be a step toward justice. The logic of calling the authorities, however, is dispelled at once; for how are we supposed to call the police, whose declared mission is to serve and protect, if immediately we entertain the idea that they might be connected with it? All over the world, it is becoming increasingly clear that countries with despotic leaders use the police and military to intimidate their people and create a society in constant chokehold.


It took a few days to be slapped by the truth. It occurred to me that posting a tweet and a detailed Facebook status, both of which conveyed the first-hand terror of being made an onlooker in a murder, and engaging with queries related to them, was the most I could do in the situation. The incident I witnessed was reported in the news and forgotten at once, buried along with the others as new killings and worse executions surfaced.

Barely four months in office, Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippine president whose brutish repute on and off social media contributed majorly to his election, had already set in motion the machinery for the state-sponsored murder of the poor in the so-called war on drugs, targeting thousands of the young and old and turning warm bodies into cold statistics. It is a well-oiled engine that coerces unwilling participants, and it keeps moving even at a time of a global pandemic four years later, when another narrative of war waged on the poor is being facilitated by a kakistocracy, when every aspect of freedom is put in peril. It is impossible for any Filipino living at the moment, in the Philippines or overseas, to carry on without having to confront the Duterte problem, to not acknowledge that his promise of change involves unleashing of monsters.

Witnessing a killing is traumatic, but as the years go by — as Duterte’s inhumane policies are normalized and fake news peddlers multiply in number and influence — this trauma has settled into despair. In hindsight, my purpose for speaking up in 2016 derives from an obvious moral duty, an ethical clarity: for people who read my post to realize and be persuaded that extrajudicial killings (called “tokhang” in local parlance), an issue still disputed and defended to this day in spite of hard facts, are happening; that an actual person they know and who has no reason to lie about it is telling them he has seen it himself; that matters concerning extermination of human lives are non-negotiable. I have no illusions that such a small action is enough, but it can never be futile; and it’s only a matter of time when a piece of work can stand against the horrible reality and be strong enough to hold the line.

One of these arguments is that more than anything Duterte’s war is a class war. The legacy of the “war on drugs” is the shameless lie of its own name: What it has succeeded in eradicating is not drugs but lives and morals.

There is Raffy Lerma’s “Pieta” photograph, which immortalizes the image of a weeping woman embracing the dead body of her partner. There is the reportage of Ezra Acayan called “Duterte’s War on Drugs Is Not Over,” an album of photos that speaks volumes of heartrending violence. And then there is “Aswang” by Alyx Ayn Arumpac, the first feature-length documentary made by a Filipino on the subject, a film aided by funds across Europe, Asia, and America, since it could not be supported in its own country. These visual works are not merely artefacts of current events or points of discussion that elevate the significance of art in a low point of history; what makes them endure is they serve as inspired weapons with clear political intent and position, created not incidentally but thoughtfully. Each bears accountability and contains the difficult process of absorbing, let alone grasping, the enormity unfolding at the front and the structures enabling it underneath. Furthermore, the proximity of the authors to their subjects is the most vital element that substantiates the effort, the condition that warrants their distinction; and in this evident proximity the Filipino audience to whom each work is addressed is specifically defined and prioritized.

There is a reason that photojournalists like Lerma and Acayan, visible in numerous crime scenes and openly discussing the politics of their work, have become more prominent. Photographs are immediate and accessible, and in the internet age these qualities dictate consumption. Cinema, at least the traditional kind, takes more time and relies on a longer process and production. Since 2016, however, there has been no shortage of films whose themes and plotlines intersect with Duterte and his war. It is not the elephant in the room: It is — unequivocally — the room.

The most popular of these films in the arthouse community — “Respeto” (dir. Treb Monteras, 2017), “Neomanila” (dir. Mikhail Red, 2017), and “BuyBust” (dir. Erik Matti, 2018) — are compelling depictions of disquiet; although as early as 2009, when Duterte was still a mayor in southern Philippines, “Engkwentro” (dir. Pepe Diokno) had already presented the vicious world of his leadership, particularly his alleged ties with the Davao Death Squad. Titles such as “Double Barrel” (dir. Toto Natividad, 2017), “DAD: Durugin ang Droga” (dir. DinkyDoo J. Clarion, 2017), and “Kamandag ng Droga” (dir. Carlo J. Caparas, 2017), even with the awful filmmaking and messaging, cannot be disregarded because of how miserably they render the outrageous effects of populism. Echoing the dread of everyday experience, the fusillade of short films, student theses, animations, experimental and installation pieces, not to mention the hundreds of scripts submitted for grants in local film festivals, have been unable to escape the mantle of Duterte, a presence so ubiquitous and belligerent that foreign media, lured by comparisons to Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro, have felt the need to chime in.

They have come here mostly to report about the drug war. But there persists a level of colonialist force at work in the coverage of broadcast material produced by predominantly Western institutions, not only in terms of number and audience reach but, more revealingly, in the ease and speed with which they are made. The government makes no attempt to hide its machinery from the world and welcomes any display of curiosity and validation, but the Filipino media on the ground, constantly digging and following the trail of blood, always move with caution. A 2018 study lists the Philippines as the deadliest peacetime country for journalists in Southeast Asia, with a large number of unresolved killings; and over time it has become more and more difficult to document lives in the shadows and deaths in broad daylight without stirring up a hornet’s nest.

Completed in over three years, “Aswang” is not in a hurry — it is not a tweet or a Facebook post that desires immediate consideration. It is a piece of research that does not limit itself to observation and recording of realities. Functioning both as history and story, it argues for the inevitable fate of art to be political and puts forward extensive commentary on the Philippine society’s path to perdition. The result is timely and timeless, a film that is important for every Filipino to see but is also very hard to swallow.


From the title alone there is already a powerful dialectical proposition. Arumpac uses the Filipino folklore of “aswang” — the collective term given to the various creatures of the night whose violent and threatening nature, the actions of which result in grisly deaths, is used to scare children and serve as cautionary tales. The aswang, as expected, is a fixture of the horror genre, its conventions and permutations exploited in literature and movies not only for entertainment, for how the horrific villain serves a dramatic narrative leading to catharsis, but also for how it discourses unique facets of tradition, including the gender and cultural problems associated with its history. The feat of “Aswang” lies in the searing clarity and exactness of this correlation with the current political climate. At the center of the documentary are characters who bear witness to the poor Filipinos being killed at night; and the mythical aswang, the monster preserved by oral lore to instill fear, shape-shifts to another form, one that is not imagined but maintains the ability to terrify and terrorize: Duterte.

Arumpac shares in an interview how her foreign consultants are hesitant about the metaphor’s key role in the narrative, presumably because it might not translate well into foreign audiences, and since it is uncommon for a social documentary to delve into the mythological. But this is the foundation of “Aswang” — the power of perpetual mythmaking, the roots of folktales in social realities, the reliance of Duterte’s war on a similar myth implicating a monstrous enemy to be annihilated — and removing this link means erasing the identity of the film and its filmmaker. Arumpac is the voice that keeps repeating the myth, the teller who cautions listeners about the horrors of the past finding their equivalent in the present. She poses grim questions: What happens when people stop listening? What happens when these myths are revised without their knowledge and used against them? What happens when the consequences are fatal and lead to slaughter? The film does not answer them directly; instead it commits itself to surveying the ethical and moral problems of being in a state-declared war and proposes arguments about this historical reality.

One of these arguments is that more than anything Duterte’s war is a class war. The legacy of the “war on drugs” is the shameless lie of its own name: What it has succeeded in eradicating is not drugs but lives (those who are born poor and cannot afford to subsist decently because of their oppressive conditions) and morals (testing the principles of people who are forced to witness and withstand the environment of lawlessness). The Duterte regime’s deliberate adoption of war language is patriarchal and absolutist, and citizens are conditioned to regard everyday deaths, enacted by men, as essential and inevitable. This is palpably felt in how the people in “Aswang” speak, in how their voices grapple with fear and anger. More than the striking images, what demands attention is the space given to the survivors and victims and activists, how they are framed with importance and dignity, and how the film allows them to be seen and heard.

“Aswang” recalls the brutal murder of seventeen-year-old Kian delos Santos, tortured and shot by the police in August 2017. At his wake Arumpac meets his friend J—. A rapport develops between them as he opens up to her, and she follows him until at one point he disappears. J— is a child, and what may be perceived as performance in front of the camera — spewing expletives, telling the story of the monster in the river, playing with friends in a dumpsite, mimicking with chilling accuracy the actions of the police and thieves, answering questions with uncanny confidence — demonstrates his being a child. In his conduct one can see how he is made vulnerable, at such a tender age, by the growing violence around him.

At the same time, the film also recalls, through the other subject Brother Jun Santiago, that more than 90 percent of Filipinos are adherents of the Christian faith. Hovering over the Catholic images in houses is the fact that over a thousand people are being murdered every month, and at one point the total number of deaths has reached over thirty thousand. In addition to Brother Jun’s church work, helping victims with the funeral fees and visiting them in their homes, he crusades for justice. He listens to grieving parents and monitors the authorities. His rage about the killings is translated into humanitarian work. He and J— never meet in the film, although the ground they walk on has the same smear of blood and the same disposition to frighten.


The danger lies in seeing the two as symbolic, reducing them to mere images of hope and humanity, and it speaks a lot about Arumpac’s integrity that the film does not make them stand for anything but themselves. She does not draw things neatly nor offer answers for the sake of understanding. She is judicious in connecting the consequences of violence and allowing a wider view of the atrocities committed to the masses. The incidents are not plucked out of context, and the details could have come only from staying long in one place.

Some of these details linger because of their profound precision: the mother holding pictures of her dead son, vowing to spend her life seeking justice; the pavement with fresh blood being swept; the funeral parlor owner and his mechanical answers; the story of poor people taken hostage and put in a burrow behind a cabinet in a police station, captured and interned for ransom (a situation that calls to mind the experiences of migrants applying for asylum in the United States and kidnapped by the Mexican cartel). All these narratives, when put together in the overarching lattice of the aswang mythology, allow for a recognition, and in turn elevation, of cinema as a weapon of dissent.

While the majority of movies about the aswang (including other creatures from Philippine folklore depicted monstrously) fall under horror and fantasy, expected to excite and entertain, there are few films that foreground its poetic and political function and see its bearings in the collective psyche. In the works of Lav Diaz and John Torres, for instance, the aswang can terrify without the sight of blood and slaughter. Its presence is both confounding and common sense and continues to change the course of history and the lives of ordinary people. Whether intended for commercial or arthouse audiences, these films expose the many divides of Philippine society, i.e. how the view of the aswang as a terrorizer, as an agitator in quiet towns and cities, owes to its geographical and social status as well as the image created from constant retelling — the aswang as a reminder of fear and violence, as a pariah from the province, as an ugly usurper of peace. Duterte, in his political career leading up to his presidency, has been all of these, and his rise as a demagogue has only laid bare the decades-long tensions between the powerful and the powerless that have reached their boiling point in the present.

Completed in over three years, “Aswang” is not in a hurry. It is a piece of research that does not limit itself to observation and recording of realities.

The most satisfyingly enigmatic picture of this intersection between politics and folklore can be found in the seams of Mario O’Hara’s “Pangarap ng Puso” (2000). The English title (“Demons,” taken from the Rosario Cruz-Lucero story on which it is based) refers not only to the creatures told in bedtime stories and moralistic parables manifesting in various stages of its lead character’s life, but also to the political upheaval happening in its time, between the presidencies of Ferdinand Marcos and Corazon Aquino in the 1980s and 1990s, in the midst of the militarization of provinces, the vilification of insurgents, and the state surveillance of activism. In the respective films of Arumpac and O’Hara, cinema rejects complicity and understands the devastating implication of the myths that survive over centuries of oral tradition. As the proud successor of Marcos’s tyrannical, megalomaniac ambitions, even orchestrating the motions for Marcos to be given a hero’s burial, Duterte shows no sign of wavering and continues to create replicas of his own.

It comes as no surprise that “Aswang” could not be financed and screened locally without attracting trouble. In a country where the president remains shockingly popular, supported by the majority of senators and lawmakers, obeyed blindly by the police and military, who would dare? Only a growing global pandemic has halted the killings, but people continue to die because of policies and decisions that put the entire nation in disastrous circumstances. In Duterte’s harrowing six years, it is one nightmare after another. And on top of the problems brought about by imperialism and neoliberalism and capitalism and cronyism and fascism, the aswang of the precolonial is reincarnated in every generation to instill new fears, rendering the history of the Philippines as a history of never-ending trauma.


This essay was commissioned by the Asian Film Archive. Project Consultant - May Adadol Ingawanij. Richard Bolisay's book of film criticism, "Break It to Me Gently: Essays on Filipino Film," is available here.