'Aswang': Film Review

International Documentary Festival Amsterdam
Eye-opening exposé penetrates Manila's claws of darkness.

Alyx Ayn Arumpac's debut documentary examines the impact of the Filipino government's "war on drugs."

A quietly nightmarish vision of dystopian social breakdown, Alyx Ayn Arumpac's debut feature-length documentary Aswang paints a grim but compassionate, compelling picture of present-day life on Manila's exceedingly mean streets. Examining the painful human impact of the Filipino government's "war" on drugs — or more precisely, drug users — in a clear-eyed manner that pulls no punches, this intermittently grueling slice of behind-the-headlines reportage won the international critics' FIPRESCI Award when premiering in the newcomers' sidebar at IDFA. Further festival play is likely for this Philippines-France-Norway-Qatar-Germany co-production, especially among events favoring human rights themes.

Arumpac's polemical intentions are unambiguous: No representatives of the government, police or army are interviewed; instead the emphasis is on those who have to deal with the consequences of President Duterte's ultra-hardline policies. Pointedly, the president himself appears only via a demonic effigy, ceremonially conflagrated. Mostly taking place after dark, Aswang — named after a boogeyman-like predatory figure in local folklore who "preys on humans" — is on one level a catalog of atrocities, in which numerous bloody corpses are shown sprawled on pavements, victims of shadowy death squads.

"President Duterte kept his campaign promise," a citizen remarks in the early stretches, by killing "the drug users and everybody involved in drugs." The death toll since the populist came to power in 2016 is, according to the film, around 1,000 per month; a precise figure of 31,232 fatalities is quoted at one point, a considerable boon to private companies like Eusebio Funeral Services. This organization, upon whose premises numerous scenes of Aswang are filmed, specializes in low-cost, rudimentary burials. We see one such interment, involving niches sealed up with cinder-blocks and wet concrete. Eusebio also operates as a "police morgue" where cadavers are temporarily stored after discovery on the "killing field" of the street.

A radio report cites another eyebrow-raising figure, this one even harder to substantiate: "85 percent support" among the public for Duterte's crackdown. "I am for Duterte, but what they did to my brother was wrong" is the paradoxical lament of one bereaved relative whose sibling was presumably one of that ill-starred 31,232. Arumpac seeks to penetrate beyond these bewildering statistics, taking the August 2017 death of teen student Kian Lloyd delos Santos as the starting point for a cautious journey into a labyrinth of fear, violence and paranoia.

Arumpac chances upon the victim's young friend Jomari, who looks no more than 6 years old, but who quickly emerges as Aswang's main focus of attention, sympathy and concern, as well as Arumpac's unofficial guide to Metro Manila's poverty-stricken shanty-towns. Strikingly independent and resourceful for a kid of his age, Jomari comes from a typically troubled background — his drug-dependent mother is serving a jail sentence — but, like most of his peers (who refer to the cops as "the enemy"), somehow manages to maintain a cheery, lively exterior. When he unexpectedly disappears from view around the halfway mark, the film becomes a quest to track him down — and the longer this eats into the running time, the more the viewer's dread deepens about the likely outcome.

The omens are oppressive: The city is clammy, dank, inescapably unwholesome, its air and water repellently polluted and stygian. Colors and textures are rendered in a muted, metallic, cobalt-blue palette; nocturnal urban vistas are illuminated by harsh neons and the inescapable pulsating reds and blues of police lights. Arumpac may well have studied the recent fictional works of Pedro Costa, Lav Diaz and Tsai Ming-Liang, and she's doubtless familiar with the late Filipino maestro Lino Brocka, whose full-blooded 1970s evocations of crime-ridden Filipino cities (most famously Manila In the Claws of Darkness) stand as a kind of ur-text for Aswang's downbeat visions.

The aim here is clearly to raise awareness and rouse anger about a system where "financial justice" prevails and a person's social standing determines whether they end up dead on a sidewalk or comfortable in an "air-conditioned jail cell." The government, several commentators point out, prioritizes those at the bottom of the food chain, allowing the well-connected "drug lords" to operate with impunity: "Why does the war on drugs only target the poor?"

In the end, without giving too much away, Jomari's story concludes on a relatively "happy" note. But while the way in which Arumpac and her editors (the very experienced Anne Fabini and newcomer Fatima Bianchi) drag out the "suspense" about his fate is undeniably effective, it crosses the line into the manipulative. Their intentions are, of course, impeccable: Jomari becomes a kind of poster child for thousands upon thousands of street kids enduring squalid, hazardous conditions across Metro Manila, collateral damage in the Duterte regime's pitiless campaign.

In a necessarily tough, urgent work studded with startlingly extreme visuals — like a parade of whip-wielding, self-flagellating penitents, flaying their own backs into bloody pulp — it's the quieter details that really hit home, such as glimpses of kids sleeping among piles of refuse on the roadside. Attempting to cover a lot of thematic ground in the course of a conventional running time, Arumpac — whose elegiac voiceover adds a poetic layer to the gritty proceedings — jumps from subject to subject in a manner that occasionally feels scattershot. But each episode, such as an extended sequence involving the discovery of an illegal, cramped custody cell, hidden behind a police station's office cabinet, pulls its weight. Each adds further bloody threads to a desperately disturbing tapestry of structural inequality and endemic, state-sponsored atrocity.

Production company: Cinematografica Films (co-production Les Films de l'oeil sauvage, Stray Dog Productions AS, Razor Film Produktion GmbH)
Director-screenwriter: Alyx Ayn Arumpac
Producers: Armi Rae S. Cacanindin, Alyx Ayn Arumpac
Cinematographers: Tanya Haurylchyk, Alyx Ayn Arumpac
Editors: Anne Fabini, Fatima Bianchi
Composer: Teresa Barrozo
Venue: International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (First Appearance competition)
Sales: LevelK (Lauren@levelk.dk)

In Filipino, Tagalog
84 minutes