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At Large

Heartfelt welcome while surviving the ‘Aswang’

By now most of us are aware of the harsh reception that awaited (and still awaits) repatriated overseas Filipino workers (OFWs).

Once dubbed our “new heroes” for their sacrifices and their contributions to keeping our economy afloat, OFWs are finding the welcome mat suddenly swept from under their feet. This, in the wake of mass repatriations from the countries where they worked occasioned by the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead of warm hugs and grateful greetings, our returning workers are met with a hostile reception, required to spend weeks in isolation and quarantine, at times forced to sleep on cold pavements and in refugee centers.

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Fortunately, not everyone harbors the same fears and hostility toward our returning heroes. In Makati, families living in the upscale Salcedo Village of Barangay Bel-Air thought of encouraging their children to draw welcome notes and cards for the returnees. The workers upon arrival at Naia were required to undergo mandatory testing and wait for the results while housed in serviced apartments where they were subjected to strict isolation, one OFW per room.

Armed with the welcome notes and cards, personnel in these temporary quarters placed them on breakfast trays left at the door of each unit. Handmade but heartfelt, the cards lifted the flagging spirits of the homesick returnees. In some cases, with many OFWs not able to buy pasalubong for their families, some Salcedo mothers even donated brand-new children’s clothes for the OFWs to take home.

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Early on, said some residents, they were initially scared upon seeing busloads of OFWs, fears of COVID-19 infections fueling paranoia. But overcoming their concerns, the Salcedo community chose instead to reach out to our “new heroes,” putting heart and caring at the center of this time of fear and anxiety. Would that other communities reach out in this way to OFWs in their midst!

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We first meet Jomari at the wake of his friend Kian Loyd delos Santos, who was allegedly executed by police in 2017, suspected of being a drug runner. Jomari is all alone at the wake, his face barely touching the top of the casket where Kian, then 17, was lying. Kian is also the sole (the sole!) victim to find justice among the more than 5,000 killed in the course of the Duterte drug war.

Jomari is many years younger than his “kuya,” an affectionate term for “older brother,” but Kian’s death haunts him, as this and other street executions jolt the sensibilities of urban poor folk as portrayed in the film-length documentary “Aswang.” Filmed over a span of two years, “Aswang” then documents how this fear and loathing is eventually muted and internalized into a free-floating anxiety.

Filmed in the muddy garbage-strewn alleys of informal settlements, “Aswang” captures on film the death toll among the poor as well as the impunity with which police behave. But it is Jomari who is the heart of the film. Jomari’s parents are both in jail on drug charges, so the boy is left to fend for himself, plucky, resourceful, and street-wise. But he is also just a boy, taking inordinate joy upon holding a gift of rubber slippers and a t-shirt.

Together with Jomari is a cast of folks, as the film’s synopsis said, “whose lives have been caught up in these events: a journalist who tries to make a stand against lawlessness, a coroner, a missionary brother who comforts bereaved family members.”

About the most touching and alarming scene in “Aswang” is of Jomari and his friends who turn wood scraps into pretend weapons: handguns, knives, even a bazooka. They pile on a playmate who plays victim, acting out shootings and street battles they must have witnessed.

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“Aswang” is directed by Alyx Ayn Arumpac, who worked as a producer in local television before studying filmmaking in Europe. Before the lockdown, it had been scheduled to premiere locally at the Daang Dokyu film festival in March after winning a slew of awards abroad. Given the timeliness of “Aswang” — it was released soon after the passage of the Anti-Terrorism Act and a few days after the rejection of ABS-CBN’s franchise bid — the folks behind Daang Dokyu chose to migrate to the digital world, making it available for viewing for 24 hours.

No one knows if “Aswang” will change Philippine society, much less put an end to the killings. But viewers will surely feel a chill to the bones after sitting through it, another “chilling effect” of our troubled times.

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TAGS: Aswang, At Large, coronavirus pandemic, coronavirus philippines, COVID-19, drug war, Kian Loyd delos Santos, mass repatriation of OFWs, Rina Jimenez-David
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