Two things set Alyx Ayn Arumpac’s Aswang apart from documentaries about Duterte’s drug war, and most documentaries in general. First is that it feels less like a straight up documentary, and more like a fictional film. It begins not with the usual laying down of factual context (often with prologue-y text), but with the laying down of an atmosphere – that is, the atmosphere of fear that the talk of an aswang (a shape-shifting, viscera-eating creature in Filipino lore) brings about. The motley characters that populate the film (a streetwise urchin, a heavy-hearted religious brother, an uncomfortably droll funeral parlor owner) seem drawn from scratch for a gritty twenty-first century noir novel. There are no news clips or other devices that help anchor what you see on screen in “real current events”. There are hardly any traces of the formal, sit-down interviews so common in most documentaries, and in the moments where they are necessary they come out as conversations that organically weave into the film’s flow.
Indeed, I felt that as a work Aswang was more analogous not with other recent documentaries about the Drug War in the Philippines (which I talk more about below), but with another piece drawn from the imagination: Jakub Schikaneder’s disturbing Murder in the House.
On the right-hand side of this painting we see the crumpled, bloody figure of a young woman lying on the ground. On the left, a group has formed, looking upon the victim. As macabrely brilliant Schikaneder’s rendering of the dead body is, this painting focuses more upon the crowd that surrounds it; this causes us to more closely consider these people who have suddenly found murder in their midst.
There is no panic or hysteria. If there once was, they have been replaced by other emotions. Clasped hands show pity, a man craning his neck for a better view from the back is more curious than anything. The child in the foreground, head cocked to the side, has an air of pensiveness as she regards the victim who does not seem to be a great deal older than her. The only figure that clearly shows overt distress is a man who points to the girl and seems to be explaining something to his fellow bystanders. Could he know something about the murder? Is he involved somehow? It is not far-fetched to think that he bears some sort of responsibility in this scenario, something that we will return to below.
Murder in the House makes us think about not just what happened to the murdered girl, but what it must be like to be her and her neighbors – to be poor, to live in a dirty, dead-end alley, to meet undignified ends. Like Schikaneder’s painting, Aswang trains its cameras on both the dead and on the people who gather around them and live their lives in the same space.
Sometimes there are certain truths that we can only get at through fictionalizing, or drawing from one’s imagination. This is why novels and movies and visual art works can be so powerful. Aswang is a non-fiction work that harnesses this quality well, and bluntly reminds us that sometimes, you just can’t make these things up.
With this texture, the second thing that sets Aswang apart is that unlike preceding documentaries (such as On the President’s Orders from PBS and the Oscar-shortlisted The Nightcrawlers from National Geographic) that took pains to establish that the police and the Duterte government are behind the killings, Aswang only barely mentions Duterte. By setting aside (at least for this moment) the stating of conclusions, the film opens us up for more self-conscious reflections and unsettling questions about the drug killings.
And one of those difficult questions that I have heard over and over (especially here in Europe) is, why do the killings continue? Why don’t the Filipino people put a stop to them? To be sadly honest I’ve never heard a satisfying answer to this, and neither have I come up with one myself. What we do know is that simply knowing (or having the positivized knowledge of) what is happening and who is responsible has not been enough to create a critical, agitated mass to “act,” and so the attacks go on.
There is this crucial scene in Aswang that I felt bravely began to broach this problem. It is a heavily anonymized scene of at least two men using crystal meth. It glosses nothing over. The camera follows the disposable lighter as it traces the line of meth down the folded foil. The men’s voices are rough and nonchalant. They sound like they belong to the sort of people one tries to avoid while walking along Manila’s streets at night.
Of course they will always be afraid; fear comes with the territory, one of the men explains. But if you really want something, you will find ways to get it, the men continue. Drug use (from the users’ subjective construal) is a means to an end: a “need” to cope with their day-to-day drudgery and desperation.
If this sounds eerily familiar it is because similar lines are uttered by an alleged member of a “death squad” in the National Geographic documentary. This self-proclaimed assassin talks about fear in the same way, and he describes their motivation to kill along comparable terms of an unavoidable need. The nightly assassinations are also a means to an end, and desperation is a motivation. The parallel is jarring. That both addicts and those who execute them seem to be two sides of the same coin is one of the disturbing contradictions that has been surfaced by these documentaries.
If we should begin to think about how mere knowledge of the Duterte regime’s responsibility for the deaths of thousands has not been enough to resolutely stop his drug campaign or kick him out of office, we have to consider how Duterte’s casting of drug addicts as “the enemy” has largely been successful as it had been helped along by decades of “conditioning” (apart from decades of poverty and neglect that have provided the structural frame for addiction to thrive). Growing up watching the daily news on TV Patrol, on a slow night there would still be at least one or two drug-related heinous crimes included in the broadcast, complete with gruesome details and suspects portrayed as demons-incarnate. Even in the best of times there is an elementary ambiguity with which we are made to regard “these people.” It should be apparent how it took very little for the figure of the “addict” to be exploited by the time Duterte came into power.
And this is Aswang’s crucial intervention: it makes us confront those fears again. The film is unapologetically immersive. You know how they say that there are some films that you can actually smell? This is one of them. We dive headlong into a world of dirt, of dark passageways that make us draw our bags closer to our chest, of grubby hands (now we know where they have been to cause them to be so grubby), a world that not even dozens of poverty-porn films can ever approximate or diminish its visceral effect.
But the more formidable challenge the film poses is when we are brought face to face with this world’s residents. How are we to think of the grating incompatibility of how slum kids can call law enforcers as “kalaban” and yet dream of becoming policemen one day? How are we to think of these same kids (in a show of future juvenile delinquency, surely?) pitilessly gang up on one of their playmates who has fallen helplessly on the riverbank that is more trash than sand? How are we to think of the property owner who briskly tidies up her store front after a shootout, the blood still fresh on the ground? How are we to think of the local undertakers who nonchalantly discuss whether another body can fit in the single graveyard niche? How are we to think of the two addicts mentioned above? How are we to think of the ex-convict mother who appears on camera gaudily made-up and decorated with (probably fake) gold jewelry before taking her young son to pick at trash along the streets in the night?
If we are able to walk away from Aswang with our resolve still intact that these lives are worth fighting for – and not under the auspices of some “all lives matter” liberal rhetoric, but specifically because these are abject lives – then we can begin to undercut the Drug War’s seeming ascendancy. If we are no longer afraid of such abjectness, then Duterte’s Drug War has no leg to stand on.
So we return to Schikaneder’s painting. What if the frantic man gesticulating in the painting is simply the figure of the (as we anthropologists would label them, “ethnographic”) photographers and filmmakers who have taken on the awful task of documenting the drug war? He gestures wildly to make the people around see – to really see – the victims not just as the “innocent poor”, but individuals and people in all their “concreteness”: their contradictions, ruinous behavior, bad choices, and yet still very much deserving to live, being themselves like us.
And the crowd is ambiguous. There is sympathy, yes, but the resolve is not yet a hundred percent there. The murderer may yet get away. And what about the dead? Her arm stretches out, reaching towards those gathered, perhaps to beseech, perhaps to rebuke.
Aswang premiered at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) in the Netherlands in November 2019.