In this documentary, Duterte's drug war is a hunt for the aswang

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"Aswang" is the first Filipino-directed full-length documentary on the war on drugs and draws parallels with the aswang — but more than just as a vampiric, shape-shifting monster of folklore. Photo courtesy of ASWANG 2019

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — “Kapag sinabi nilang may aswang, ang ibig sabihin nila: matakot ka.”

The central metaphor of the newest full-length documentary on the Duterte administration’s war on drugs campaign isn’t just apt; it resonates true to the Filipino experience, like a gong in any local’s psyche.

As the first Filipino-directed full-length documentary, it draws parallels with the aswang not just as a vampiric, shape-shifting monster of folklore, but also as a CIA creation for fear-mongering, and as a real-life marauder that mimics the behavior of something out of lower mythology, disguised and clandestine.

Even now during the community quarantine, there are rumors that Iloilo and West Visayan officials are using aswang scare tactics to help impose the curfew against the locals.

In the late 2010s, director Alyx Ayn Arumpac was in Europe for a few years, completing her Docnomads Erasmus Mundus Joint Master in Lisbon, Budapest, and Brussels. But she came home in 2015 sans job, later on witnessing how Rodrigo Duterte was elected president. To make ends meet, she took projects and production gigs, while she accompanied her friend, the photojournalist Raffy Lerma (both were former Philippine Collegian colleagues), to his nightwatch rounds on the police and city beats, curious about the rumors of “extrajudicial killings.”

What Arumpac witnessed on those ride-alongs convinced her of the need for a Filipino perspective on tokhang. Her full-length documentary would not just tackle the emotional heft of the horrid event, but also attempt an expression of her feelings on it that might, she hoped, eventually exorcise her own demons.

From 2016 until post-production in 2019, Arumpac and her crew took to the streets from late night to dawn and bore witness. This was the seed of "Aswang," a joint effort from institutions in France, Norway, Qatar, and Germany that pooled their resources and funding for its completion. First shown at the prestigious International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), it was supposed to have its local premiere in March 2020’s Daang Dokyu festival before the lockdown against COVID-19 cancelled all events.

The documentary follows characters whose fates entwine with the growing violence during two years of killings in Manila. The two central ones are Brother Jun Santiago of the Redemptorist Brothers and the young street kid Jomari.

Santiago works not just to document the killings but also helps in the funeral and burial fees for those who are left behind, often poor and almost destitute. While Jomari tells the story of the drug war kids, the orphans and the abandoned youth, since in Jomari’s case both his mother and father are in prison for drug-related charges. It’s pretty good serendip, too, that the filmmaker met Jomari at the wake of Kian Delos Santos.

There is a third character in this trinity: a woman who confesses to being imprisoned inside the secret jail behind the bookshelf and filing cabinet in a police station in Tondo. Like some ghost she only appears in shadow, close shots of her arms and hands as she draws the cramped layout of the cell on a notebook, filled to the nooks with her fellow prisoners.

"Aswang" can be a bit meandering at first, mostly since it assumes you know the major peaks and valleys of the tokhang chronicles — from Kian Delos Santos’ murder and the rise of the tandem shooting modus, to the secret bookshelf jail and the funeral parlors that deal with the influx of the dead.

"Aswang" director Alyx Ayn Arumpac. Photo by MATTEO GARIGLIO

The two major, and arguably more popular, foreign-made documentaries on the drug war are National Geographic’s "The Nightcrawlers" (U.K.) and PBS Frontline's "On the President's Orders" (U.S.). They’re mostly straightforward docus of the informative this-and-that-happened type, with talking heads and arm’s length objectivity. In Arumpac’s narrative though is something innately magic realist, something that is innately Asian rather than Western in approach and tenor. This was made for those who couldn’t escape the news, who lived daily with the threat of tandem riders.

"Aswang" is a meditation on the tokhang chronicles by a local, at once sublime and gruesome. What makes this different is its point of view: the perception by a Filipino for fellow Filipinos. The tone is quite liberating, making it free to reflect our own collective feelings of frustration, grief, horror, and utter bewilderment back at us.

That it is beautifully composed of imagery worthy of the caliber of a Hollywood movie or South Korean horror cinema, Arumpac credits to her cinematographer Tanya Haurylchyk, and her editors Anne Fabini and Fatima Bianchi. She states that they truly made the gritty visions look cinematically exquisite. For Arumpac though, there was a feeling of aestheticizing the horror, a distrust of the attractive imagery that happened to be bathed in the blood of real people. It’s something that the director struggled with.

That you wish this was some fictional Bong Joon-Ho movie is part of why "Aswang" is so effective. Part of what makes it very Filipino is how it hits the emotive inflection points that the other major tokhang documentaries often only casually gloss over in favor of just-the-hard-facts.

"Aswang" never lets the facts get in the way of the truth, finding a way to conjure emotive exorcism without being sentimental or forgetting the plain bloodiness of it all. Arumpac obviously knew the tragedy and sorrow of her country and her fellow Filipinos intimately. Here, she has lovingly constructed an important, unredacted record for these dark times for our own use, free of pretense or agenda.

The film just won the Amnesty International Human Rights Award at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival. The citation for the film said: “[Aswang is a] powerful denouncement against state terror, resilient and painful humanitarian stories coming from different voices, enthralling connections between the popular myth of the “Aswang monster” and everyday violence, poverty and death looming in the cities. A cry of despair from the “marginalized”, pleading for justice and human rights.”

In this interview, Arumpac, executive producer for GMA News and Current Affairs, talks about the making of this powerful and riveting documentary. Opinions expressed in this interview are the subject’s.

"Aswang" never lets the facts get in the way of the truth, finding a way to conjure emotive exorcism without being sentimental or forgetting the plain bloodiness of it all. Photo courtesy of ASWANG 2019

There’s a really intimate and comforting feeling that pervades the film in its tone and vibe that it was made for Filipinos. How did you adjust and manage to toe that creative line?

I insisted on this form. I insisted on the aswang, on using the metaphor. And I was told off many times, mostly by my foreign consultants. And then I was told, you know, maybe we can do instead a straight reportage? Or a straight film with talking heads and everything? Just so it could be bought by broadcasters.

I was just saying: “No, I still want to do the aswang; I want to do the metaphor.” I think that was also basically the guide for me as to how to film it, how to approach it. And then I was very fascinated with the connections as well, the spirituality of the Filipino, since the fact that my protagonist was a priest.

Throughout the process, especially during the first month I really tried digging through my thoughts and feelings. So after every shoot I would go home at 5 a.m. or 6 a.m. and I would transfer material right away. Then I would write a bit about what happened during the day, sometimes just to make sure I had the names and locations right. Sometimes I would write about what happened. What I thought. What I felt.

Did you draw on personal experiences about the stories of the aswang?

I am from General Santos City and we lived beside a forest inside this subdivision, because it was a newly constructed subdivision. I was around eight years old, I think. One day the yaya of our neighbor said there’s a sigbin [Visayan aswang variant] who roams around the village and lives in that forest. At night you need to sleep and you can’t wake up, because if you do and you look at the window you’ll see red eyes and long nails. The windows back in the day were jalousie types. She said the sigbin would put its long clawed fingernails inside the window to get you. I was terrified for so long!

The documentary follows characters whose fates entwine with the growing violence during two years of killings in Manila. Photo courtesy of ASWANG 2019

The beauty of the cinematography really clashes with the bloody subject matter. It’s a stark and very powerful contrast.

One of the things that I wrote [a few months in] and [still] remember: I was saying, you know, I always wanted to make cinematic films, beautiful films, but I wrote down that “There's nothing beautiful about this.” I mean, how can you make a good film out of this? Because there's nothing good about it. I even felt bad about trying to construct images, trying to construct a frame around this entire situation.

The idea of using a beast from folklore that scares makes this documentary very different and very Filipino. That kind of clarity in a nonfiction product is rare.

The entire idea of this war on drugs for me was finding a common enemy, finding a scapegoat. And that's what the president did there. No one liked the drug user and the drug dealer who would rape kids and [Duterte] made this narrative. It has always existed, but he made this narrative and then he made everyone go against this set of people. So that was his common enemy, the same way that previous generations think they went for the communists. That was very clear to me and this was also why I immediately went for this idea, as well, of the aswang.

While other foreign-made and major documentaries about the war on drugs are very different in approach, we think that Filipinos and those familiar with how the tokhang events and stories have gone may find something ritually therapeutic in watching this docu.

I have to say Filipinos will get it more. Filipinos will feel it more, and it was made that way. I didn't expect foreigners to understand all the connections of the images. But then I also had what you would call a “target audience.” I knew who I was making the film for, and the sooner that was clear to me then the easier I could make my decisions and the easier the rest of my team would get on board.

"Aswang" will soon be available on video-on-demand internationally.

UPDATE: "Aswang" is available for a limited time starting 6 p.m., July 11 until July 12. For those interested, the film's website has a call to action section which encourages viewers to help the victims of war on drugs.