Documentary review: 'Aswang' captures the horror that is the war on drugs

Fred Hawson

Posted at Jul 11 2020 12:11 PM

A scene from the documentary 'Aswang,' which will be made available online in the Philippines from July 11, Saturday, 6 p.m. until the next day.

During this COVID-19 quarantine, three controversial, internationally-acclaimed documentaries about Philippine politics had been shared by their filmmakers online for Filipinos to watch for the first time.

Last May, Lauren Greenfield's "The Kingmaker" was streamed, laying bare Madame Imelda Marcos' enduring belief from the Martial Law days up to the present time -- that "perception is real, truth is not" -- straight from her own mouth. In June, on Independence Day, Ramona Diaz's "A Thousand Cuts" was streamed for free on YouTube for 24 hours, two days before a local court found its embattled subject, Rappler founder Maria Ressa, guilty of cyber-libel.

This weekend, a third hard-hitting political documentary by an intrepid female filmmaker is being shared online. "Aswang" by Alyx Ayn G. Arumpac had its world premiere at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam last November 2019 where it won a major award. Since then, it had also been screened in a couple of big human rights film festivals, and won the Amnesty International award at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival held virtually last May.

"Aswang" is about the aggressively heated war on drugs launched in 2016 in fulfillment of presidential campaign promises. Various tragic stories during this drug war among the urban poor had been tackled by several filmmakers like Brillante Mendoza, Erik Matti and Lav Diaz in the past couple of years. The most recent one was Ben Rekhi's gritty "Watch List" released in cinemas just a month before the quarantine.

In contrast to these works of fiction, Arumpac brought her camera directly to the scenes of actual crimes to tell the grim aftermath among the families left behind. We see the real people and their emotions, not mere actors. We hear their own words, not lines penned by a scriptwriter. We may have seen these families in short clips on the evening news, but here, they are given a little more time to tell their grievances.

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Children who live in these grim slum conditions were highlighted by Arumpac. Her narrative began with the death of teenager Kian Lloyd de los Santos allegedly at the hands of cops. From there, Arumpac picked one of Kian's much younger friend Jomari to serve as a focal point of her film. Left to fend for himself while his parents were both incarcerated, the precocious, street-smart urchin Jomari had prematurely jaded pronouncements, which were in stark contrast with his innocent glee in shopping for superhero slippers and basketball jerseys to wear.

In between stories of the drug war, the director and her editors also factored in some side stories to further drive home her point against the dire conditions suffered by the urban poor. There were scenes from a fiery street protest against the leadership, with the presidential visage used as the basis of a satanic effigy. There was also a detour to describe the case of how human rights officials freed a number of male and female inmates who were kept sealed in a dark, humid, putrid cell hidden behind a filing cabinet.

We may say we have heard all of these things already from the news, perhaps ad nauseam for some. However, when these painful scenes are compiled together in a documentary like this, the tragic human drama is amplified a hundredfold. It aimed to jolt us out of our privileged seats of comfort and direct our eyes to these "invisible" socio-political tragedies happening right under our line of sight.

How coincidental that it would be streamed to the Filipino public just days after the anti-terror bill was signed into law, and the day after a one-sided congressional vote took down a mass media giant. The timing could not have been more uncanny.

This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."