To stare the beast in the eye

04 Nov

Emerald Flaviano Manlapaz

Still from Aswang (2020) trailer.

This year marks the fifth after President Rodrigo Duterte was elected into office and the start of his bloody war on drugs, and after the death and internment of thousands of poor Filipinos in graves marked and unmarked across the country. For many families orphaned by the drug war and who cannot afford the yearly lease of their loved ones’ graves, it means reliving the violence of their loss as the bodies are exhumed to either be cremated or thrown in anonymous mass graves. They are reminded of their pain, not just from the brutal death itself, but also from the denial of justice and the willful disregard, if not outright derision, of many of us of their pain.

Alyx Ayn Arumpac’s Aswang (2020) is in many ways an exhumation as well. Released in October 2020 in the Philippines1 in the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic, the documentary both recalls many of the scenes of the drug war, previously splashed nightly across local news and frequent subject of features in the foreign media,2 and explores an aural landscape of Manila at war previously uncharted in an effort to make sense of the insensible. But what distinguishes Aswang, the latest in a string of drug war documentaries? It certainly can stake a claim to novelty; it is after all the first by a Filipino filmmaker that was so explicitly against the drug war. Cut loose from the constraints of local funding, Arumpac could say what she wanted to say, without much fear of reprisal,3 and go beyond the requirement of time-sensitivity. While the topic itself demands urgency, the immediacy of violence is somewhat arrested to make room for some introspection. (That seems to be the goal, at least.) The mainstream news media have clearly eased up on their reports, in favor of the more pressing battle being waged against the spread of COVID-19—a losing one, thanks to the same government behind the drug war. But this is not to say that the killings have magically stopped during the pandemic; in fact, they continue unabated

Still from Aswang (2020) trailer.

Aswang offers stories that many of us are well-acquainted with. After all, so many special reports and documentaries have exhausted almost all of the perspectives in the drug war; Brother Jun Santiago’s face is a familiar one, and so is Orly Fernandez’ and Vincent Go’s. Victims’ families’, photojournalists’, the police force’s, vigilantes’, a funeral director’s, gravediggers’, Antonio Trillanes’, Mocha Uson’s, the Commission on Human Rights’—these are all the accounts that have been heard. The biggest concern for Aswang—and all documentaries that will come after—then would be to answer to what use do we put all these narratives. Taking up mainly Santiago’s perspective as he chases to document the killings across Metro Manila, Aswang lets us in on a behind the photographs look at the crime scenes. In many ways, the images feel like part of another feature on the drug war: scenes of the aftermath of alleged shootouts, of funerals, of anonymous entombments in apartment cemeteries, of prisons crammed full of bodies, are interspersed with stories of grief and loss, of indignation and disbelief, but also of helplessness. While it seems that the camera cannot resist the spectacle of the dead body and the dank city, Aswang does give us some opportunity to look at these familiar scenes and faces askance. We see for instance, the silence of bearing witness. Neighbors and bystanders stand silently and look on as the similarly wordless SOCO work and photographers shoot. A lone wail punctures the silence when a loved one arrives, but violence, after its event, is so still, the matter-of-factness of sweeping up the mess—of bodies and blood, of the grieving relative—so unnerving. 

Aswang tries to turn our attention to what the killings are successful in achieving—certainly not a drug- and crime-free country, but one that is preyed on by fear and by those who will use this fear for their own selfish ends. The documentary argues that we are like children in our fear and in this fear learn to be silent and to turn away. At the same time, it also offers a stark picture of how children suffer from the drug war. Arumpac finds the young boy Jomari, in the wake of Kian delos Santos, the seventeen-year-old boy whose killing, caught on CCTV camera, was one of the very few which resulted in the conviction of uniformed personnel. Jomari, no more than eight, lives on his own because his parents are in jail. It is unclear where he gets his food, where he bathes and sleeps. Grownups living in the general area where Jomari plays with other children–somewhere near an estero—yield very little information, shrugging off Jomari’s situation because he seems to manage on his own. The indifference is astounding; people seem to forget his being a child—something which Aswang reminds us constantly. 

Still from Aswang (2020) trailer.

Children have been killed and orphaned because of the drug war. With the loss of a parent, they become worse off in terms of having their daily basic needs met. They also suffer from the negative psychological effects of the violence—seeing the actual killing or being wrenched away from a parent begging for their life, being bullied at school or ostracized in their community.. Perhaps because they have always been taught fear, we forget how deep and enduring its workings are. The estero where he plays with his friends is a source of fanciful thinking for Jomari—of snakes hiding in holes, a siyokoy in the murky waters waiting for a leg to pull, the river that swells and devours. He scampers with his friends when one of them jokingly announces that there is police nearby. Jomari is free to make of the world what he will and to obey its rules as he sees fit. In the absence of those who would look after him, fear certainly helps keep him safe from physical harm. But it also stultifies; he finds himself in a world that must always be feared. He will eventually learn that he can’t really do anything to make sense of these fears, much less deal with them. And thus will he grow up to be like most of us, willingly unable to see the true face of the monster that haunts us, the root of our fears that drive us to keep repeating the mistake of choosing the leaders that we do.

Still from Aswang (2020) trailer.

How should fear be made sensible? Arumpac puts forward sound, and imbues it with narrative power. The city’s ambient noises—traffic and barking dogs—is made to converse with an unearthly hollowing sound, as if of a calling absence. A high pitched tinkling sound, its vibrations lingering, also goes with the howling and reminds us of how we have been made children in our fear. In an interview with Katrina Macapagal, sound designer Teresa Barrozo spoke of “sensitivity” to Arumpac’s images. Instead of scoring scenes heavy with emotion or graphic in violence, Barrozo chose to work on building an atmosphere of dread, as of being haunted. Sound was made to “[float] freely above the scenes,” sensible but not quite material. A voice speaks instead, weaving folk belief with admonishment and appeal to expose the shapes that the aswang takes. In this way is its presence called, for the city and Duterte are only forms that the aswang of inequality takes on–forms that we latch on as the objects of our fear.

This is not to absolve Duterte of course; he should be made accountable for the violence—against the victims of the drug war, against our democratic institutions, against the very fabric of our society (not much to begin with, but still). “Ano ang silbi ng saksi kung biktima lang ang nahuhuli ng kanyang tingin?” the voice asks. But there is power in making sensible. Indeed, the very visibility of the drug war is an opening, a first step if you will, to stare back at the problem. The body, after all, manifests first and most markedly the wages of violence. We must begin with it—dead, imprisoned, thin and sickly—because it does not take much to feel as it does and to know, if not understand, its pain. It is, rather, the way that we see these bodies that have been ravaged by the drug war, by poverty and inequality, by the wilful neglect of those in power who can and should take care of them, that we must always take to task. By making sensible the culture of fear that the drug war leaves in its wake and putting into context the need to make suffering visible, Aswang is a step in the right direction.


  1. At the DaangDokyu Film Festival, which ran online from 19 September to 5 November 2020.
  2. For an exhaustive and updated list of multimedia resources about the drug war, please visit the website of the research project “Violence, Human Rights, and Democracy in the Philippines,” a joint initiative by the Third World Studies Center of the University of the Philippines Diliman and the Department of Conflict and Development Studies of Ghent University.
  3. Arguable, given the Anti-Terror Act of 2020.
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Posted by on 04 November 2021 in 2020 Citations, Film Review


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