Alyx Arumpac’s Aswang (2019) as Counterspectacle

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Alyx Arumpac’s Aswang (2019) as Counterspectacle

The documentary film genre, through an analysis of Aswang (2019), evokes a reflexivity despite its self-determined spectacularity — a possible critique of the film medium as spectacle.

The Film as Spectacle

A spectacle is a “tool of pacification and depoliticization” (Debord, in Durham and Keller, 2006). Examples are very much evident in our society, particularly in popular culture, such as films, tv programs and advertisements. A society mediated by the spectacle becomes dependent on a system of images meant to capture the attention of the spectator, in effect promulgating inattentiveness to more pressing issues in our society. Human relations become strained as it becomes mediated by the image. One relates to another through the spectacle. In this discussion, we seek to evaluate first how an image becomes a spectacle through Bruce Isaac’s concept of spectacle affect. His framework is used in the analysis of Alyx Ayn Arumpac’s Aswang (2019). The filmic form here is treated as a medium that lends to its self-determined spectacularity a kind of reflexivity in terms of the affect that it portrays and the affect that it seeks to evoke from the spectator. The result then is a reevaluation of the film medium and an opening up of its possible critique of the spectacle through the documentary film genre.

Isaac formulates his concept of the spectacle that works up the image towards an excess through Kristin Thompson’s concept of “cinematic excess”. Thompson (1986) puts forward the idea that there are aspects not contained within the filmic medium, composed of the narrative and the stylistic form, that are in essence autonomous but at the same time dependent of the film as a cohesive unit. The “effect” of film, so to speak. She emphasizes Roland Barthes’ semiotics through her analysis of his essay “The Third Meaning”. She paraphrases Barthes in her argument that “the materiality of the image goes beyond the narrative structures of unity in a film” (p. 131). Isaac (2013) advances Thompson’s idea of the excess in extending her definition to include the affect of film in congruence to its function as a self-determined spectacle. He problematizes and repositions the affect as a function of the mis en scene, movement and editing and not merely an outcome of the filmic medium. He recognizes the narrative style of film that has been privileged, over emphasized even, within Hollywood. This privileging homogenizes and over simplifies the filmic medium as it seeks to produce films within structures of cause and effect, of chronological “narrative sequences”. What is lacking, he argues is an understanding of “modalities of image” and of “cinema’s affective register” (204). Inherently, he recognizes the excess of affect that triggers the spectator: 

“[T]he spectator is carried away not only by narrative mechanics (and cognitive cues) but also by what several recent theorists refer to as ‘intensities’: movements, rhythms, sound motifs, image motifs, energies, the substance of cinema that functions in concert with narrative.” (204)

Isaac surfaces “this notion of affect, whether in Deleuze or elsewhere, [that] again asks what cinema is beyond a transparent mediation of signs” (204). He locates the affect at the source of its production, the film viewer’s body. In quoting Vivian Sobchack, he emphasizes the notion of affect as an “embodied” experience of the filmic medium. He comments on how the role of the spectator has been overlooked in previous theoretical paradigms that sought to study the excesses of the filmic structure. Borrowing from Sobchack’s framework, he refunctions affect between the dynamic tensions of “experience and language” and of “subjective vision and objective image” (205), more precisely of “narrative mechanics and image modality” (210). He positions the film viewer’s body as sites of encountering the filmic form with an affective potential. This paradigm shift sheds light on a more holistic role of affect, not only as an element embedded within the filmic language but also as an embodied experience. This in turn puts forward a more “organic and mutually affecting relationship” between the narrative and the image.

He interchanges his use of the term “image modality” with “image intensities”, a rather productive form of analysis for the purposes of unpacking Alyx Ayn Arumpac’s Aswang (2019) within the context of cinematic affect, given the “intensities” of movements, rhythms, sound motifs, image motifs and energies it resonates. The affect that becomes apparent within the film, seeks to evoke an affective response from the spectator. 

Alyx Ayn Arumpac’s Aswang

What is particularly interesting in Alyx Ayn Arumpac’s Aswang is that it overlays metaphor to the narrative style to put forward an account that is not of fiction but of truth. As Isaac’s concept of the spectacle affect works within the boundaries of filmic fiction, Arumpac’s film operates within truth. Documentary films are, in essence, the least mediated of the film genres. It follows a narrative that is not purely story bound but of the uncertainty of an unfolding event. They are structured not to imitate life or present a realism that mimics reality. The spectator is given the cold truth. The analysis of Aswang through the framework of Isaac’s spectacle affect that drives the image towards an excess prompts a careful examination of its intensities that comprise its mis en scene, in congruence with its narrative.

Aswang (2019) film stills, courtesy of LevelK

Aswang operates within the affect of fear, a kind of terror that seeps through and shakes the human core. The film achieves this through its employment of the human voice, a familiar aural element that instinctively registers to the body upon hearing. A voice over that details the existence of a halimaw long before the city existed sets the tone of the film right after the opening shot of a crime scene is shown. The aural quality of the voice over guides the spectator throughout the film as it overlays the myth of the Aswang with scenes from Duterte’s war on drugs. The stories that once were folklore, the voice fears, might have come true. Every night bodies turn up on the streets. Death permeates the city. This fear registers itself to the viewer’s body through the voice over, in concert with the ambient sound design of each scene as well as the intercutting of the images that form the narrative of the film. As if chanting, the voice repeats a line over and over to remind the viewer of this fear: “Kapag sinasabi nilang may aswang, ang gusto talaga nilang sabihin ay matakot ka.” The narration seamlessly ties together the scenes as the narrative carefully unfolds in front of the viewer. Another aural element that evokes this affect of fear are the first-hand testimonies of the families of those killed in this drug war and the voice of the victims falsely accused of drug possession. The shake in their voices suggests grief, fear, anger and frustration. We, the viewers, cannot also simply ignore the voices of Jomari and his peers, that despite the reign of terror, they could still laugh and joke about this fear. They acquire the stories surrounding the drug war and act them out through role playing, they play cops with guns, they assume the small plastic bags found in the garbage as used drug paraphernalia. This gives rise to an anxious realization that the effects of this drug war are beyond pervasive and will continually live within the subconscious of these children.

Another intensity worth exploring is the film’s imagery of death as an aftermath of violence. The dead bodies lie in silence but they speak volumes of how pervasive the effects are of the extra judicial killings. Kian delos Santos lies in his coffin, a hatchling patters on the glass panel, the voice explains, through lore, that justice will soon be restored as the hatchling “knocks on the killer’s conscience”. In this scene of Kian’s wake, we meet Jomari and acquire his perspective. We meet more dead bodies through the perspectives of the funeral director (Orly Fernandez), the photojournalists (Brother Ciriaco Santiago III, CSsr, Ezra Acayan, and Vincent Go), the families of the victims and the gravediggers. Through their perspectives, we, the viewers, share the burden of witnessing these deaths. Blood is washed from the streets. Candles are lit on the sites of these killings. Bodies are carried away in stretchers. The seemingly endless encounters of bodies lying on the ground builds up on the terror perpetuated by the mythical aswang. The voice speaks again: “May alimuom ng agnas sa hangin”. In a wakeful manner, the voice clamors for contemplation: “Ano ang silbi ng saksi kung biktima lang ang nahuhuli ng kanyang tingin?”

Catholic imagery was carefully introduced through the intercutting of scenes where penitents conduct flagellation. It is then accessed through the careful unfolding of Brother Santiago’s role as a religious brother while serving for the Eucharist. The evocation of this catholic imagery brings forward the irony of the prevalence of these killings in a largely religious setting, as if the religious willfully casts away their attention, as if the killings are justifiable. Morality comes into the picture. Here the viewer could begin to question the seemingly justifiable nature of these killings in treating the drug users as the main problem, when in fact they are only symptoms of a greater network of drug peddling within the country. The number of victims of these state sanctioned killings, as Brother Santiago spoke them, were mortifying. Morality is also evoked through the imagery of the inhumane condition of prisoners, the imagery of the testimonial of an anonymous survivor as she draws from memory the image of a hidden cramped cell behind a bookshelf, and as well as the deplorable process of burying unidentified bodies in the cemetery.

The film concludes with Jomari’s narrative. His once imprisoned mother, accused of drug use and possession, was able to get home and be in his company. We see Brother Santiago driving into the night. The voice speaks, now with hope:

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 nilalamon ng takot ang tatag. Pero meron pa ring hindi natatakot at nagagawnag harapin ang halimaw. Dito nagsisimula.

In analyzing Aswang through Isaac’s framework, the function of film as an affective medium becomes apparent. More so if it is applied in the analysis of the genre of documentary films. Isaac treats the spectator not as a passive viewer but an active mediator of the affects put forward by the film. That although, the film is a spectacle, the specificity of the documentary film in presenting truthful records of history or events that are unfolding generates a filmic form that can counter the concept of the spectacle. It is possible that the spectacle, in itself, becomes the critique. Documentary films prompt reflexivity, an affect that goes against the definition of a spectacle. Aswang in a sense is a counter-spectacle. It is not grounded in filmic fiction as it is very much steeped in truth. The use of the metaphor of the aswang does not cover up the stark reality of terror that prevails in Duterte’s drug war but it amplifies it and that it evokes the same affect it portrays to the attentive viewer. The tendency is to avert the gaze of the aswang, in fear of falling prey to its killings. The film makes you look again and see for ourselves the perspectives of those who are on the actual front lines of these killings who uphold the truth, the photojournalists. Aswang is blunt evidence of the failure of Duterte’s drug war and to look away means to cast a blind eye towards the inhumane and unjust effects of his reign of terror. The film prompts action and vigilance. Instead of looking away, we must return the gaze and confront, once and for all, the monstrosity that is plaguing our society. ■

Works Cited

Arumpac, A. (2019). Aswang. Philippines: Cinematographica.

Durham, M., & Kellner, D. (2006). Media and Cultural Studies. Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing.

Isaacs, B. (2013). The Orientation of Future Cinema: Technology, Aesthetics, Spectacle. New York: Bloomsbury.

Thompson, K. (1986). The Concept of Cinematic Excess. In Philip Rosen (ed.), Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology: A Film Theory Reader. Columbia University Press. pp. 130-142.

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