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What’s going on in the Philippines? How is Rodrigo Duterte conducting his “war on drugs”? What are the real consequences of his brutal regime? These are probably the questions that pushed many viewers to attend the world-premiere of Alyx Ayn Arumpac’s Aswang at IDFA last year, and convinced new ones to watch it when screened at Zurich Film Festival.
In the local folklore, “aswang” is an umbrella term used to describe many shape-shifting spirits that prey on humans, such as vampires, ghosts, witches and other monstrous creatures. Since 2016, this “nightmarish” term has become part of everyday life in Manila and all over the archipelago. The documentary opens with a shot depicting a flashing police siren and what seems to be a crowded crime scene. «Night after night the darkness unravels bodies, sprawled face down on the streets. Death floats down the rivers and the sea», says the voice over narrator at the end of this short prologue. That’s exactly what happens in the Philippines, where police are allowed to torture, kidnap and kill anyone suspected of being involved in drug-dealing activities, with minimal or no consequences.
Here, Arumpac chooses wisely to focus her attention on the experiences of a limited group of people – among these the portrait of Jomari, a street boy, is the most shocking. She successfully documents the cruelty of the death squads in an impassioned cri de coeur that manages to remain lucid and achieves her goal of a “wake-up call” to the rest of the world. The camera work is functional and skilfully avoids sensationalising misery and violence. The score is essential and does a fair job, without overdramatising such despair. The lack of testimonies from the other side of the “barricade” (for example, police officers or government officials) represents a strong political statement itself and the choice to set almost the entire film at night already serves as an obvious, unintentional metaphor of the “dark times” under Duterte’s dictatorship.
All in all, Arumpac proposes a brave, urgent piece. Her documentary builds up multi-layered criticism towards the regime, showing how the current system is the result of connivance and corruption at many societal levels, ultimately proficient in protecting the strong and the powerful. There are surely certain areas that might have been explored in more depth; for example, the actions (or inactions) of political opponents, intellectuals and the Church. Nevertheless, Aswang accomplishes its main mission and leaves the viewers petrified and perplexed, reminding them that in the Philippines «whenever they say an aswang is around, what they really want to say is be afraid», and today it is still so.
Text: Davide Abbatescianni
First published: October 05, 2020