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Masterclass Series Highlights: Docs By The Sea Alumni Case Study: ASWANG

Wednesday, 18 August 2021

Alyx Arumpac is an alumni of Docs By The Sea 2017. She is the director of award-winning film Aswang (2019), a film about the impact of the Filipino’s government war on drugs

The masterclass was moderated by Raymond Phathanavirangoon, SEAFIC Executive Director.

Did you always want to be a documentary filmmaker?

My thesis at the University of  the Philippines was a documentary about Muslim women in urban prisons on false drug charges. I didn't think about it until 10 years later, but yes, I was always into documentary, and that’s why I went into current affairs. I'm really interested in human rights and social justice. Then I attended Docnomads Erasmus Mundus Joint Master from 2013 - 2015. I made 2 shorts Garage Inventory (2015) and Beast (2016) during my study, which was good for me later on because as a first-time filmmaker, people will look at your shorts to see what kind of film language I have and what kind of films I was interested in doing.

What is Aswang?

Aswang is a monster that we have in the Philippines. I think every culture has it. Everyone, every child knows about it because it's used to scare us. It takes on different forms; it could be your friend, and then at night, he turns into a monster. It's just everyone's nightmares. It's a generic thing for different types of monsters actually. Why the film became Aswang is because of this idea of fear mongering, spreading the fear, this fear of cultural impunity. That's basically the entire idea of the project.

What are the labs/pitching forums that you have attended? How did you know about them?

The first lab I attended was Talents Tokyo in 2015, but it was for a different project. I really started developing Aswang in 2016. With Aswang, I have attended (1) Doc Station at Berlinale Talents, in which I have to apply with one pager; (2) Docs By The Sea, where I met my editor Anne Fabini, producers team from Norway, and Isabel Arrate Fernandez from IDFA Bertha Fund; (3) DokLeipzig Co-Pro Market, which was not very successful because we were pitching the film too early, and we didn’t have a dossier and good film treatment; (4) DMZ Docs Project & DMZ Docs Fund (South Korea), where we got $8,000, the fund for first-time filmmaker; (5) IDFA Forum and IDFAcademy Summer School; and (6) Whickers TV and Film Awards Pitch.

I learned about these programmes mostly from a lot of online research, from my French producers, Facebook, and some resources that list down these grants. I made a lot of tables with these grants, their deadlines, and requirements. Then, I made my application based on this list.

What is a good time to pitch in your view?

I would pitch when I have a good dossier, a good film treatment, and a really good trailer. You have to be able to show something to the people if they want to see the film more. And this is what happened to me at IDFA forum. I was pitching a lot, some people were interested, but we didn't really have enough material to show them. Same thing with festivals, people would only really put their eyes on the project once. So, the timing is really important. And to me, application is only about 2 things: a very well-written dossier and good visual material. Also, writing is very important. If a director can’t write, a producer should write, if both cannot write, it’s good to work with a writer because early on it is very important to get funding. 

How did you meet your producers?

I went to Berlinale Talents Doc Station. We were asked to write a one-pager, consisting of a synopsis, director intention, and a bit of bio, which was then circulated to producers and other people that might be interested. I met my first producer, my French producer here because he was interested in my one pager. Then Army, my local producer, came on board in March 2017. I know her because she is my sister’s friend. 

Aswang is a Philippines, France, Norway, Qatar, Germany co-production. How did you manage to do so many things in multiple countries?

You have to be very organised with your materials. I actually made a database because we have so many materials that span years. I made an Excel for everything, with keywords, dates, and protagonists so that it’s easy for everyone else to access the materials. And with co-production, you really have to choose the right partners, and really have to think about what your partners can put in. At the very beginning you made a deal memo, toward the end you have a co-production deal. 

How did you approach your subjects and build rapport with them?

I filmed so many people. The ones that made it to the final cut are the ones who look reflected very well on the camera, the ones that I have good relationships with.  If they are afraid, I wouldn’t push them anymore, if you feel it was being transactional like they wanted money, I didn’t do that anymore. I have a lot of discussion and negotiation with myself regarding this. I also consulted with brother Jun who was in the film. He is a priest, and he is used to dealing with people in trauma. Taking that advice and perspective is very important for me. Don’t do it alone! You have to talk to other people about this.