Myth-making through Documentary: An Interview with Alyx Ayn Arumpac

With Arumpac’s fierce dedication and restraint in presenting the grim realities of modern Philippines under Rodrigo Duterte’s presidency, it is hard to tell that Aswang is her debut documentary feature. Following a young street kid whose parents are imprisoned and a journalist that seeks to give voice to the victims, the film charts the lives of the people who have been gripped by systemic violence and corruption brought upon by the unnecessary incarceration and killings by a police force that is supposed to protect the innocent. 

The documentary opens with an incantatory preface describing the ‘aswang’, also known as various shapeshifting evil spirits in Filipino folklore. The unnamed narrator warns and laments, suggesting that the ‘aswang’ has taken on modern forms to haunt its helpless citizens, especially the dire and poverty-stricken locals caught in the drug war. The elegiac narration continues to punctuate the film’s grisly and harrowing accounts by the locals, as if it is a ritual to ward off and warn of these unlikely modern day evil spirits—police cars that patrol the streets at night. 

Arumpac’s documentary is a triumph in revealing the extent of the systemic horrors brought about by the police targeting the poor through extrajudicial killings without sentimentality or being exploitative with the gaze of its camera. Her unconventional approach to capturing these unimaginable terror under Duterte’s dictatorship through the lens of a myth is unique and effective in critiquing the state while also giving a voice to the dead.

SINdie had the opportunity to ask Alyx Ayn Arumpac some questions, particularly about her process in making this harrowing documentary, the struggles and responsibilities of using a camera through the lens of myth-making in presenting a grim reality of contemporary Philippines. 

Tell us a bit about yourself and how/why did you get started in documentary filmmaking? 

I studied creative writing at the Philippine High School for the Arts and did my bachelor in film at the University of the Philippines. I did my master's in documentary filmmaking at three universities in Europe through Docnomads. I also produce current affairs for television in Manila, nowadays doing mostly short docs. So it has always been storytelling for me, in one form or another. 

How did the idea to view the current situation through the lens of Filipino folklore come about? 

I was already doing some research on the ‘aswang’ folklore and how this was used for fear mongering and social control when I saw the first images of the drug war - people brutally killed and proudly being displayed in the streets for all to see. It was a loose association but I kept the idea at the back of my head. It was a challenge to title it Aswang if I could not formally incorporate it in the film. Luckily I worked with talented collaborators who supported this vision and tried their best to make it happen. 

What was your process in making this documentary? Did you already have a structure in mind or did it form organically in the edit? 

I spent a couple of years going on night shifts, waiting for news of killings all over the city and rushing to the crime scenes to document them. Whenever something piqued my curiosity or interest, I would follow up during the day. This was the early research method. About a year into the process, I had to write an expanded film treatment to apply for grants. I looked at the material and constructed a treatment, and this was the first time that I could imagine any sort of structure. Editors Anne and Fatima, who are not only brilliant but also the most wonderful and empathic human beings, sorted it all out in the cutting room.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in getting this documentary made? 

There were so many challenges with this film. Trying to get access, constantly thinking about security during filming and after the release, tracking down people and thinking about their welfare afterwards, and just dealing with this blanket of fear hanging over everything. Of course, funding and support is always a challenge, especially for first-time filmmakers. 

Did you at any point feel that you or your crew were in danger during filming? 

Any confrontations with the police? As a rule, I always made it a point not to cross lines and to respect the authorities. I did not want to take unnecessary risks that would put myself, the protagonists, the producer, all of us in the Philippines in trouble.

Your camera is unflinching as it stares straight at the horrors and violent aftermaths of the extrajudicial killings by the police, how did you struggle with representing these painfully grim realities on screen? 

The killings happened so frequently, with such regularity that there was a tendency to be numbed by it all after a while. I think the camera also sometimes acts as a filter, because all your senses are focused on what goes inside that frame. It is afterwards - when you reflect about it all, when you review the things you had filmed and are forced to confront it directly - that it all sets in. The first impulse is to show all the horrible images in the hope that the world would be shocked into action. Eventually one would learn that this is not always the case, that there has to be a delicate balance and great care and restraint in showing images of pain and suffering, especially in films.

What did the state or the media in the Philippines think about the film? 

The lockdowns cancelled the film’s cinema premiere back in March. Then one week in July, the Philippine government passed the Anti Terror Law and also shut down one of the country’s largest broadcasters. It was a crucial moment, a big blow to our freedom of speech and democracy. We decided to do a limited online release soon after the law was passed. Our friends in the Philippine film community rallied and helped us spread the word about the film on social media. 

Within the first few minutes, the website crashed and we had to do a lot of troubleshooting. It was a collective effort with other Filipino filmmakers who helped us that weekend. The film had hundreds of thousands of views in 30 hours and even trended on social media the entire weekend. The feedback from the audience and the media was overwhelming, I feel that it may have resonated to many Filipinos somehow. This was very important for me because this was who we made the film for, this informed the core creative decisions. 

Who are you making this film for? It was a humbling moment of clarity. What are your thoughts on the current state of documentary films in the Philippines or Southeast Asia? Do you see it evolving? 

The Philippines’ first documentary festival Daang Dokyu wrapped up recently with great success. There is certainly an audience for docs in the Philippines, and people (especially the younger generation) appreciate, enjoy, and really look forward to them. It was a great opportunity to expose the audience to different forms of documentaries, beyond the TV docs which are understandably more accessible. The festival also showed documentaries from the 1980’s - sharp, hard-hitting, beautiful films which reminded us that good films are anyway timeless. The challenge is to give documentaries greater importance and more platforms to be seen. 

Are you currently working on any projects or will you be working on any upcoming ones that you would like to share with us? 

I’ve just started writing something new. I’m quite excited because during this early stage ideas can still run free. Anything is possible. 

Aswang travelled the festival circuit earlier this year winning the FIPRESCI prize at the IDFA Competition for First Appearance amongst other awards. It will have its Singapore premiere on the 29th November at the 31st Singapore International Film Festival. It will also be available for online viewing at the festival’s website. 

Review and interview by Alexander Lee Sze Wei
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