Winner of the prestigious Amnesty International Award at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, Filipina documentarian Alyx Ayn Arumpac’s Aswang offers an unflinching look at the human rights crisis that has affected tens of thousands of lives in her home country over the past four years. Since the 2016 election of President Rodrigo Duterte, who soon thereafter announced that the Philippines would withdraw from the International Criminal Court (in response to the ICC’s efforts to launch an investigation into the mass incarcerations and extrajudicial killings that have taken place as part his regime’s “War on Drugs”), a number of protests have sprung up in opposition to the state’s unchecked power. From Manila to the provinces of Cavite and Laguna, overpopulated prisons burst at the seams, as do the mass gravesites where, on a daily basis, mourners hold vigils for the dearly departed. Graphic but necessary images of dead bodies on the streets — the bullet-ridden remains of victims of hired assassins and vigilante groups working for local police and federal agents — serve as grim reminders of the stakes involved in resisting authoritarianism and becoming a “criminal” in the eyes of the law. Arumpac reveals the extent to which the Duterte killing machine has instilled a sense of dread within the populace. But she also showcases individual acts of heroism on the part of a coroner, a street kid, a former prisoner, and others for whom the titular creature — a reference to the fictional shapeshifter who preys vampirically on humans in Filipino folktales — is a reminder of the all-too-real monsters feeding on those present-day fears. Aswang marks the feature-length debut of a talented, compassionate filmmaker who spent several months with her subjects, gaining their trust through her own commitment to seeing the nation’s top elected officials being held accountable for crimes against humanity. As if confronted by the ever-morphing river monster denoted by the film’s title, viewers of Aswang will be haunted by several of its images, including that of a baby chick chirping atop a casket, disarming us with its sweetness but only partially distracting us from the cruelty that led to the death of the teenager inside that white box.
By David Scott Diffrient
Alyx Ayn Arumpac
Philippines | France | Norway | Qatar | Germany
(Filipino with English subtitles)