Packed with harrowing footage, tearful testimonials, and a painfully blunt point of view, Aswang is an uncompromising documentary on the ongoing Drug War and its toll on those directly affected by it. We share our eight most disturbing takeaways from watching this must-see documentary.
Warning: Some mild spoilers (if you can even call them that since this is a documentary) ahead.
It renews the EJK conversation
Aswang (2019): a thread
Here are some of the lines in the movie that made an impact to me and how relevant they are to today’s situation under the current Administration. It left me speechless and my chest hurts seeing helpless people die without due process.
PS. Spoilers ahead pic.twitter.com/yad0zZvduQ
— anji (@angelicarbon) July 12, 2020
Filmmaker Alyx Ayn Arumpac’s Aswang debuted at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam in November 2019 to critical acclaim. The first major documentary by a Filipino director on the current administration’s drug war, Aswang was set to make its Philippine bow in March’s Daang Dokyu film festival before the global pandemic put everything on indefinite hold. The eventual local premiere instead took place last Saturday on the Vimeo video streaming platform with a free limited engagement. As many were seeing the film for the first time, social media was flooded with a renewed conversation on extra-judicial killings and their toll on the impoverished and overall Philippine society.
Those left behind
— k e b e n (@KebinEleben) July 11, 2020
This isn’t a film about death; as Arumpac shows, dying is all too easy: for the poor, having a loved one gunned down by down has become an everyday occurrence, as known and suspected drug users are gunned down with alarming regularity. From the story of Jomari, a young boy whose close friend was gunned down for allegedly resisting arrest, to a mother who had to find out from her barangay’s roving patrol that her son had been killed some nights after he’d gone missing. Aswang posits the gruesome question of whether it’s better to be slaughtered in public, or murdered with no one knowing until after the fact.
Lives of squalor and fear
watching aswang atm made me realize something. kids are known to be innocent. kids dont normally lie. watching these kids re-enact sent chills down my spine. they were aware how the killings were done. they act and play as if it was a normal thing when it shouldnt be. pic.twitter.com/TZh3FECh1J
— k.,🕊 (@kxliecarter) July 12, 2020
Aswang takes us beyond Manila’s growing collection of gleaming skyscrapers to see things at ground level, in the slums where the bulk of extra-judicial killings take place. Packed to capacity with families trying to eke out a living amidst narrow, garbage-strewn alleys, life here is oppressive enough withtout the threat of roving death squads. Playing amidst pies of refuse by a river blackened by decades of pollution, Jomari and his friends are like any other children, except that when they roleplay as police, they happily play the parts of mericless killers. In Jomari’s words, he was raised by his parents (both of whom are in prison on drug charges when the film starts) to see the police as “the enemy”, and it’s not hard to see why.
The dichotomy of the devout
The film makes heavy use of Catholic imagery and rituals as a leitmotif, often in tandem with grieving family members, despondent in their helplessness. The irony of the Philippines being built on a religion which specifically has a rule against killing is not lost on the viewer. Their despair permeates the film – these people know they have no one they can run to, and, as a mourning mother points out, doing so won’t bring their loved ones back.
The man of God
The film introduces us to Brother Jun Santiago of the Baclaran Church, who is first shown briefing a room of concerned clergy over the increase in extrajudicial killings that began following President Duterte’s election. He points out that this was always part of the President’s campaign promises, with the result being an average of a 1000 killed every month. At the time of the footage, the number was a sobering 31, 323. To put that into context, Brother Jun cites that the Church’s funeral assistance program, which provides burial expenses for those who have none, formerly serving 4-5 cases a week, now covers 5-6 a day. Through the film, we see Brother Jun judiciously observing and documenting the abuses taking place, his face silently reflecting the emotional toll of his mission.
Invisible victims and hidden cells
One of the film’s more shocking moments is the revelation that a police precinct is equipped with a hidden cell behind a bookcase. There, without space to move, several male and female suspects are confined in darkness, with no official record of their existence ever having been logged. While a corporal publicly berates the officer in charge in front of gathered media and members of the Commission on Human Rights, the former captives are far from free – they are formally charged on the spot, and transferred to proper holding facilities. Seeing the look on Brother Jun’s face as it happens, and his frustrations afterward are nothing less than crushing. And who’s to say that there aren’t other precincts with hidden cells?
It’s business as usual
Not everyone is hurting, though. While it’s established early on that drug dealers and users (alleged or otherwise) are being targeted over, say, the drug lords who supply them, establishments like the Eusebio Funeral Parlor are doing a brisk business. We cut back to the parlor a few times, and one can’t be entirely upset at the unemotional way the employees go about their practice – they’re caught in the middle, just as much as everybody else, and who are they to say no to paying customers? Perhaps the most clear sign of acceptance in the film is of a woman cleaning off a blood-stained alley, the crimson fluid washing into the cracks on the pavement. Regardless of who died there the night before, life goes on.
The bottom line
Aswang isn’t a film for those who’ve learned to live in the shadow of fear – this is for those whose privilege enables them (willingly or otherwise) to look away. Through one heart-rending sequence after another, Arumpac’s and cinematographer Tanya Haurylchyk force you to take a long, hard look at what’s going on, and the effect is as agonizing as it is unforgettable.
You can stream Aswang online at the IDFA website (a membership is required).