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IDFA 2019

Review: Aswang


- Alyx Ayn Arumpac's debut feature is a shocking account of Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal war on drugs

Filipino documentary filmmaker Alyx Ayn Arumpac's debut feature, Aswang [+see also:
film profile
, has screened in the IDFA's First Appearance section. In Filipino folklore, “aswang” is an umbrella term used to describe a number of shape-shifting evil spirits, such as vampires, ghouls, witches, ghosts and werewolves. Since the election of Rodrigo Duterte in 2016, “aswang” and murders have become a consistent part of everyday life in Manila and, indeed, all over the country.

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The film opens with a blurry shot depicting a flashing police siren. Viewers will become acquainted with the main subject in the first few minutes through the words of the voice-over narration and the first images from a crime scene. Arumpac documents the country's cruel war on drugs, during which death squads composed of police officers shoot, torture and kidnap thousands of people suspected of being involved in drug-dealing activities. This hell on Earth became the norm under the auspices of the new legislation approved by President Duterte, which allowed police to use brutal force on the poorest part of the population, with minimal consequences.

In particular, Arumpac decides to follow a group of selected subjects, whose lives have been entangled in these events: a journalist who tries to fight against the government's lawlessness, a rather self-restrained coroner, a brave missionary’s brother who tries to comfort bereaved family members, and a street boy called Jomari, whose parents were jailed and who is forced to live from day to day. The latter’s is probably the most touching and painful testimony; Jomari visits some of his late friends in the cemetery – where the tombstones and loculi are barely visible, covered with dirt and rubbish – and, during one of the interviews, defines police officers as “the enemy”. In this film, Jomari represents the torment of Manila's lost generation of children, whose future seems even more uncertain.

Moreover, Tanya Haurylchyk and Arumpac's camerawork is tactful, and the subjects evidently feel free to express themselves and talk about their everyday struggles. The aerial shots of Manila are visually striking, and the poverty-stricken districts are shown in all their misery. Most of the film is set at night-time, and is dominated by dark colours and cold neon lights. This is the time of day when the majority of the killings take place and the capital becomes a battleground for drug peddlers, users, small-time criminals and anyone “suspicious”. Interestingly, some of the interviewees highlight the fact that rich drug barons are never killed or arrested during these operations; usually, the victims are either small fry or people who find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Overall, the film is a shocking and rare account of Duterte's dictatorship and its perverse machinery of death. It is both a valuable, informative piece of work and a brutal punch to the stomach for the international audience, which is generally not aware of the current dire situation in the Asian country. This brave young director has not hesitated to tackle such a difficult topic and has taken a clear stance against the government of a nation that ranks very poorly in terms of press freedom (occupying the 134th spot out of 180 countries, according to the 2019 report published by Reporters Without Borders) and where journalists constantly face pressures, censorship, threats and, in extreme cases, death.

Aswang was produced by Armi Rae S Cacanindin and the director herself for Manila-based firm Cinematografica Films (Philippines), in co-operation with Les Films de l'oeil sauvage (France), Stray Dog Productions (Norway) and Razor Film Produktion (Germany). Danish outfit LevelK is handling its world sales.

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