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Fighting the Aswang

Seeing state terror and resistance in Alyx Ayn Arumpac’s new documentary on Duterte’s extrajudicial killings

I. Horror and Hope

It is the summer of the pandemic and protests for police abolition. It is the summer of horror and hope.

In the streets of Toronto, Berlin, Auckland, Copenhagen and Antwerp, the young and the old march for racial justice while wearing masks for protection against the dreaded Covid-19 virus that has infected more than 11.6 million people around the world. In the U.S., the premature deaths of Black men and women in the hands of the police reignite the American protests against the horror of police killings.

In New York City, thousands march in the warm evenings led by young Black and queer activists. They camp out in front of Mayor Bill De Blasio’s mansion holding signs: “Black Lives Matter,” “No justice, no peace, no racist police” and “Abolish I.C.E.”

In the sweltering evenings, citizens curse under their breaths as firecrackers explode in the dead of the night, interrupting precious sleep. Rumors swirl that the NYPD is behind the sale of the firecrackers, a tactic to tire out and punish New Yorkers demanding the end of prisons and the police.

In New York City, church-based immigrant rights groups and Filipino American journalists organized an online webinar  against a different but similar kind of state violence. The event, State Terrorism: The Philippine Experience, was attended by close to a hundred participants and featured Manila-based writer Carlos Conde of Human Rights Watch, veteran journalist Inday Espina-Varona of the beleaguered ABS-CBN, and human rights lawyer Neri Colmenares.

The event marked the passage of a new law created by the Duterte government, the Anti-Terror Bill. The law appoints a council of Philippine government officials to arrest anyone suspected of being a “terrorist,” and the vagueness of who can be defined and charged as a terrorist makes the law frightening. The law permits the surveillance and wiretap of citizens by the police and the military for 90 days. The new law, says Neri Colmenares, abolishes the protections enshrined in the 1987 Philippine Constitution by not requiring warrants for arrest, and those arrested for “terrorism” could be kept in jail for 24 days. 

Filipinos in the Philippines and around the globe condemn the new law as a weapon that targets Duterte’s critics, incarcerates his perceived “enemies,” muzzles free speech, and intensifies a climate of fear that began with Duterte’s “war” against drugs. Rather than propose a comprehensive plan for mass testing or national economic projects to aid the poor affected by the pandemic and the quarantine, the Duterte government rushed the passing of the Anti-Terror Bill. The new law continues the old ways of the Duterte state: kill law-breakers.

Since May 2016,  the Duterte government’s violent “drug war” has claimed the lives of more than 30,000 Filipinos. Most are men, women and children from the slums of Philippine cities. The corpses of the dead bear the marks of torture — bleeding cuts, blue-black bruises from repeated beatings, wounded wrists from handcuffs. The police claim they were killed in shoot-outs, “Nanlaban (they fought back),” or they deserved death as “drug users” and criminals. Some of the dead are found with duct tape covering their heads, so that identifying them is impossible. 

These extrajudicial killings, described by scholars as a “genocide of the poor,” continue in the pandemic. Bodies and pools of blood appear on the city streets, and the human remains look like the victims of flesh-eating monsters we call aswang.

Alyx Ayn Arumpac's documentary films what some call a "genocide of the poor."



II. Monstrous Manila

The monsters of Philippine life are the subject of Alyx Ayn Arumpac’s debut documentary Aswang/ Monster (2019). The documentary had its East Coast premiere last February at the “Doc Fortnight 2020” at the MoMA’s Festival of International Nonfiction Film and Media. Arumpac’s film received honors from Greece’s Thessaloniki International Film Festival (May 2020) and the international critics’ FIPRESCI Award at the 2019 International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam/ IDFFA.

The film offers a powerful meditation on contemporary Philippine life under the Duterte regime through two lives: the story of Jomari, a child of the slums, and Br. Jun, a priest and a photojournalist who works in the slums to help families affected by the government’s violent “drug war.” Both subjects are the central figures of the film’s critique of the Philippine state — the state as a monster. In Arumpac’s documentary, horror is an allegorical language to narrate state violence.

Filipinos have a long tradition of telling horror stories. From our folktales to children’s stories, everyday occurrences marked by unexplainable phenomena and supernatural encounters are meant to frighten and to enforce social mores. Because of the place of monsters in the Philippine imagination, Filipino culture reserves a specific space for the horrifying and the terrifying. In fact, there is a constellation of different emotions  connected to the different terms for fright in the local languages: hilakbot, gulantang, gimbal, takot, balisa, pangamba, sindak, bagabag, gulat, and pagkabahala are emotive responses to the macabre.

Filipino gothic: A Lenten scene shows Filipino men in black masks, whipping their backs as an act of penitence.

In Arumpac’s documentary film, the aswang, true to their form as shapeshifters, have retained their shape-shifting, flexible, and adaptive nature. They no longer inhabit the remote, mythical time and place of Filipino tales that begin with “Noong unang panahon/ Once upon a time, sa malayong lugar/ in a distant land.”

The monsters now live in the cities, the metropolis, the suburbs, the conurbations and the non-urban areas formed by uneven economic development, gentrification, migration, technological shifts, and globalization. Some of these nocturnal creatures have “embraced” the light allowing them to appear human. Their “mutations” have enabled them to co-exist in the spaces we inhabit in different times of the day and we are unaware of their true nature.

In Western gothic stories, the presence of a reliable narrator is an important requisite to create the audience’s “willing suspension of disbelief,” so that a story can cast a vast net of fright. In Arumpac’s Filipino gothic, the reliable narrator is in fact, Manila, the monstrous city. The city is not only the narrator but also a “living” organism, a witness to the ongoing degradations of Philippine life whether it be the persisting social injustice caused by the extrajudicial killings, the soul-crushing poverty or the recurring moments of dehumanization experienced by the urban poor in the hands of the police.

The city is a dynamic, pulsating character, a narrator in the film, a recorder, a historian documenting the everyday. As a hovering presence, the city memorializes the trauma of the individual, the family, the community, and the Philippine nation. The city is traumatized as it is traumatizing. In the film, from beginning to end, Arumpac presents gruesome images of violence, destruction, and death in the city. In Aswang, as the monsters leave a spate of terror in their wake, dead and mangled bodies are sprawled on the streets of Manila as remainders and reminders of the Philippine state’s all-out-war on drugs and drug-users. The economically deprived and the marginalized are the disposable, dispensable, collateral damage in the state’s gentrification projects for economic regeneration, securitization, and foreign investments.

Women and young girls at a protest rally against the extrajudicial killings wear white masks with weeping faces.

In the monstrous city, the monsters are masked individuals with guns, riding-in-tandem on motorbikes. They are the harbingers of state-sanctioned death. But the monsters also wear different clothing and appear in different shapes when they are encountered by those living in the slum communities and informal settlements. Both young and old are told to sleep, to close their eyes, not to look at the eyes of the monsters in order to be safe. But, in reality, no one is safe in the city or beyond the city. The living dead roam the city. They inhabit cemeteries, the dark alleys, and the police stations where they work behind the desk, or are confined in coffin-like cells hidden and enveloped in total darkness. Police operatives can come without any warrant to arrest, to kill any suspected individuals inside their houses and then plant pieces of evidence to justify their brutality.

From myth to reality, from Filipino folklore to the everyday, the monsters of our imagination now live with us. They roam the streets of early 21st century Manila: the living, the dead and the living dead.




III. The Storytellers and the Diwata

Arumpac’s documentary film is a return to the traditions of Filipino oral literature and the storytelling of folktales. The film rewrites Philippine folklore by upending the structure of storytelling. Rather than the usual doting grandmother regaling her grandchildren with scary stories, the storyteller is in fact a child, the young Jomari, a friend of the slain teen Kian delos Santos  whose premature death caused national outrage and protests. The documentary focuses on the horrors Jomari has witnessed in his young life — his mourning for his friend Kian, the daily grind of poverty, the incarceration of his drug-addict parents, and how he must work and earn his meal on a daily basis.

The child of the city, Jomari, is the second storyteller of state violence and his name is a contraction of the names of the holy parents of Jesus Christ—Joseph and Mary. Orphaned by the state, with his parents behind bars, Jomari’s fate is similar to thousands of children orphaned by tokhang or the extrajudicial killings. Jomari bears the contradiction of his situation as he is left on his own, scavenging with fellow street children. 

Since Duterte came to power, he fulfilled his campaign promise of “killing criminals.” For the regime, drug users were criminals who were animals that deserved death. In his public speeches, Duterte normalizes a fascist logic — to bring modernity and order to the Philippine republic, there must be a purging of “criminals” and other malcontents. Death is a fitting end for those who break the law and for the regime, drug users do not deserve treatment or rehabilitation but punishment through death.

Arumpac's feminist lens does not merely record physical and social death but grants life by humanizing those subjected to state violence: the poor.

Arumpac’s documentary questions this fascist logic by examining the living targets of state violence — the poor of Manila.  The film is a fine example of Filipina feminist filmmaking. Arumpac’s feminist gaze does not merely record death but grants life by humanizing those targeted and rejected by the Philippine state. Arumpac’s lens focuses lovingly on the bodies of the poor with no distance, as though she wants us to see the large and small wounds made by the state on their bodies and their psyches.

Throughout the film, we have close-ups of the bodies of men, women and children who describe their lives under the Duterte regime. We hear their voices: the police are our “enemy”; they shot a boy while he was feeding birds; they took my husband and shot him like an animal; they tortured and killed my teen-aged son.

Arumpac’s feminist method of filming is through witnessing and participation. We see Jomari and the other children pretend to shoot, hit and cut up one of the younger boys in their group. The tight shots of Jomari and the children visually suggest that we, the audience, participate in the children’s act of “killing.”

In Duterte’s era of machismo, the film offers a counterfigure of fascist masculinity: the long-haired and soft-spoken Ciriaco Santiago III, known  as Br. Jun, a Redemptorist Religious Missionary from the National Shrine of our Mother of Perpetual Help in Baclaran, Manila. Like Jomari, Br. Jun is a creature and a creation of the city,  and is the film’s third storyteller.  In one scene, he meets with other priests and religious leaders to discuss the extrajudicial killings. He narrates that before 2016, the Church would receive three requests a week for financial help for burying the dead. Now it is “almost three per day.”  Br. Jun says that there are almost “31, 232” accounted tokhang victims.

Duterte's inferno: A hellish scene of a Manila prison shows hundreds of male prisoners sleeping on the ground.

As a man of the cloth, Br. Jun is traditionally cast as the shepherd of God’s flock, as he administers to the sick and the poor of his parish. Beyond his role as shepherd, he is also able to exorcise or cast out demons and monsters. But here, he must wrestle with his own demons as he desperately tries to listen to the voice of God with every story of state terror that he encounters.

One mother explains how her son was innocent, and could not have been a drug courier, since he had no motorbike, contrary to what the police claimed. Another family member shares that his late brother worked at the fish port and left behind five children. And the mortician of Eusebio Funeral Homes says that one victim must have been a police informant, who, like the rest of the drug addicts, was killed so that he would be “silenced forever.”

Br. Jun gathers these stories not inside the church’s confessional but beyond church walls, in the homes of his parishioners, in the streets of the city, in the funeral parlors, in whispers in the dead of night.

In Arumpac’s film, a haunting disembodied female voice serves as the most important storyteller. While typical Filipino stories of the aswang casts the monster as a shape-shifting female, here the female narrator is not an aswang but a diwata, an oracle or a priestess, a guardian spirit who protects her domain, usually a forest, a mountain or a river. The diwata is also a benefactor of the townspeople who depend on her domain’s bounty and resources.

Arumpac’s diwata comes from a long line of diwatas of many Filipino stories, novels and political plays. The diwata reveals the truth of the great monster devouring and oppressing the Filipino people. She warns of the harrowing days to come and says that this is only the beginning of the people’s battle against all monsters.

Kapag sinasabi nilang may aswang, ang gusto talaga nilang sabihin ay ‘matakot ka.’

Itong lungsod, na napiling tambakan ng mga katawan, ay lalamunin ka

Tulad kung paano nilalalmon ng takot ang tatag.

Pero mayroon pa ring hindi natatakot at nagagawang harapin ang halimaw.

Dito nagsisimula.

*Whenever they say an aswang is around, what they really mean is — be afraid.

This city is its killing field, and it can devour you

Like how fear might sometimes drown out courage.

But some people refuse to be afraid, and choose to look the monster directly in the eye.

Here is where it begins.




Alyx Ayn Arumpac’s film Aswang will be available for limited screening in the Philippines on July 11, Saturday, at 6 pm, Philippines time. The documentary will be screened for free.

The link will be published on and aswangmovie on Saturday.