“For as long as this city has existed, a creature has roamed this land. A shapeshifter which preys on humans. They call it aswang. But the myths and old tales seem to have come to life. Night after night, the darkness unravels bodies, face down on the streets. Death floats down the rivers and the sea. Whenever they say an aswang is around, what they really mean is – be afraid.”
Since the election of Rodrigo Duterte as the President of the Philippines in 2016, a crackdown on drugs has led to the widespread deaths of thousands, ostensibly during normal police operations. Alyx Ayn Arumpac's debut feature-length documentary ASWANG shines a light on the indiscriminate killings which leave countless bodies every night on the streets of the slums of Manila. For the most part, Arumpac is a silent observer, shining a light on the various bodies, the men whose profit from their removal, and the church pastors who provide financial assistance for burials. At no point does the camera shift to the perspective of the government officials or police who are the direct cause of the deaths. Instead, the focus is solely the chaos that is left in their wake. A street child, Jomari, whose parents have both been arrested for drug use. Family members whose siblings and children were gunned down on the streets. Men and women who were arrested and thrown into a hidden crawl space in a police station where they were held for ransom. Law and order do not exist in Arumpac’s Philippines and the picture painted is one of a dystopian society where there is little hope of change.
In part, this lack of change comes from the people themselves. Over the radio, it is reported that some 85% agree with the governmental drug policy and 70% believe the government is serious in stopping the killings. A statistic is mentioned that 31,232 people have been killed, with around 1000 people dying every month. A sobbing man, whose brother had just been killed cries, “I’m for Duterte, but what they did to my brother was wrong.” Somehow despite the death, despair, and hopelessness, there are many who still support the government who openly call for the death of all drug users while also saying that drug lords are not the problem. Arumpac attempts to dismantle this paradox by stating how the population has been conditioned to look away from these problems, these deaths. However, in doing so, their lives continue to fall deeper into a state of social disparity that it is difficult to watch. Even men and women who were kidnapped by the police for ransom received no justice, under the watchful eyes of dozens of members of the press, they are quickly and quietly arrested and sent to jail, and nothing ever came of it.
ASWANG presents a chilling view of the underbelly of the Philippines, a country which is actively supported by the United States and the European Union. With stark images of bodies, blood stained streets, and extreme poverty, it is sometimes difficult to watch, but always compelling. Perhaps a bit more structure could have improved the message, but overall, the film is an eye-opening piece about the structural inequality which has led to the not just these inhumane and corrupt killings, but also the general apathetic feelings of the general public.