Interview Alyx Ayn Arumpac

"Everyone I spoke to considers it an important topic, but no one dared tackle it"

When Armi Rae Cacanindin was asked by director Alyx Ayn Arumpac to work on a film about the Filipino police, who since president Duterte took office have murdered thousands of addicts, she couldn’t refuse. “This film had to be made”, the producer says. “It is important that Filipinos see it, so they can change their opinion before the next elections, in 2021.” At that time, these elections were still four years away. “But the production took a lot more time and trouble than I expected”, Arumpac acknowledges. She did already have the title, however: Aswang, based on the collective term for witches, vampires and evil spirits that play an important role in the popular culture of the Philippines and are a powerful metaphor for the violence currently being unleashed by the state. She also spent a year following photojournalists reporting on the murders. But she didn’t yet have the money or the experience to translate her impressions and ideas into a coherent film. “Everyone I spoke to considers it an important topic, but no one dared tackle it. Too controversial. It was especially hard to get support as a first-time filmmaker. Broadcasters preferred a more traditional reportage, but we had a different idea on how to approach the film. But in the final analysis, it is a very good thing that Aswang was made with support only from foreign funds. This meant we were able to take a much more independent stance, and retain the style, narrative and creative vision we wanted. We were able to make something that isn’t just talking heads, drama and crying – which is the norm in Filipino storytelling.” Arumpac’s day job was as a producer of TV news programmes. Then at night she would go out on the streets with a camera borrowed from her father. Sometimes, she didn’t get home until five in the morning. The first year in particular was extremely trying. “Whenever I saw flashing lights, I immediately felt sick. Because I knew: there will be another corpse in that alleyway.”

She sent the material she shot during these nocturnal sorties to the IDFA Bertha Fund as an application for a contribution to the making of the film. Back then, this was rejected. “And I totally understand why”, she now says. “My trailer consisted of seven minutes of just bodies. But the rejection e-mail was a great encouragement. It said: ‘We believe this is important, but we don’t know yet where you will go with these images.’ I needed more time to develop the project.” This was further demonstrated by the invitation from the IDFA Bertha Fund to take part in the IDFAcademy Summer School in 2018. In workshops and discussions, director and producer learned to hone their idea. “The trailer was shortened to three minutes and just one body, accompanied by a lot of atmosphere”, says Cacanindin. Arumpac adds: “In the beginning, I followed a lot of characters, but along the way this was reduced to two: a journalist-priest and a little boy. This gives the film a lot more focus.” Each improvement led to another contribution from a fund, which enabled the next step in shooting and then editing. Shortly before the premiere at IDFA 2019, the makers released the final trailer in the Philippines. “Due to the title, some people wondered if it was a horror fiction film. But almost everyone who sees it understands it, and we are receiving a lot of support from colleagues. After editing, we had enough material left over to make another three films. We’ll keep that in our archive. One day, it will be important evidence.”

Alyx Ayn Arumpac (left, director) and Armi Rae Cacanindin (right, producer), the team behind Aswang, at IDFA 2019.