Wednesday, September 11, 2019

John Denver Trending (Arden Rod Condez)

Presumed innocent

Don't let the rather innocuous-sounding title of Arden Rod Condez's debut feature John Denver Trending fool you: this is a harrowing film a horror film, entirely plausible yet nightmarish in feel.

It starts with a bit of bullying: John Denver Cabungcal (Jansen Magpusao) is a klutz at a school dance rehearsal, annoying classmates to the point someone depants him oncamera (the rehearsal is being recorded on a laptop); he's accused of pocketing someone's iPhone (a pricey commodity in the USA an even more valuable prize in the Philippines) his backpack taken from him to inspect for the presumably stolen good. Something in John Denver snaps; he knocks the snatcher down and beats him and this fateful act is recorded posted online goes viral.

You can see where the film is going. Condez's achievement is to depict the ripples John Denver's act of retribution generates throughout the town with unnerving persuasiveness, the resulting state of collective insanity intense enough and persistent enough to break the spirit and weary the soul.

Condez complicates matters and partly explains the pile-on by making John Denver unpopular, something of an outcast, hardly an angel. He's known in school for his quick temper--a classmate posts a picture on how John Denver bloodied his forehead with a stone; a girl relates how John Denver once stole her lunch. The boy doesn't deny those accusations, apparently they did happen; but he persists in denying this particular act of theft.

John Denver has no friends or at least none that stand up for him online, much less in school. His only real defender is his mother Marites (Meryll Soriano) who fights for her son tooth and claw to the school administration, the barangay captain, even the town mayor. Why not? His father, a soldier, has passed away (we see a photo sitting on a makeshift shrine); the two have no one but each other (and a sister sitting in the sidelines).

And John Denver isn't exactly cybersavvy, or sophisticated, or financially intellectually resourceful (the best he can do in reply to online threats and condemnations are threats and condemnations of his own). If, as in the recent case of a high school bullying video posted online, the upper class have their wealth to console them, families like John Denver's have nothing. His mother aside from earning barely enough for them to eat has to service a debt she owes her richer neighbor Mando (poet-playwright Glenn Mas), because of a prank her son once pulled on the man's carabao--the youth had set off a firecracker and the animal died of an infection. Was her son really responsible? Who knows? Marites wasn't in a position to argue. The margin between meagre survival and sudden ruin is razor-thin, and John Denver has little room to do much of anything--to play, to goof off, to be an otherwise ordinary boy.

Nice touch, by the way, Condez naming his protagonist "John Denver"---the kind of  cheesy moniker a young woman from a small town would give her child. Helps make the film's title more memorable, gives much of the dialogue ("John Denver come here!" "John Denver what did you do now?!") an absurd charm--you keep having to quell the urge to look for the country singer when she calls out his name.

Condez's staging and direction is clean, the editing (Benjo Ferrer) assembled such that you get a cumulative sense of various fingers on various keyboards busily bringing about John Denver's ruin. The cinematography (Rommel Salas) manages to evoke a feeling of encroaching dread every time John Denver walks past the security guard at the gate into school. Like the biblical Daniel walking into the proverbial den the poor boy doesn't know what to expect--if people will stare or whisper behind his back or run past smacking him upside in the head. Maybe worse--much worse than his grimmest imagined scenarios.

Condez makes the case that cyberbullying is wrong, not necessarily because you might target an innocent but because the victim has little chance to fight back. Attackers are mostly anonymous and you have few and feeble means of recourse (I've tried on Facebook--believe me it's feeble); there's no guarantee that all or any of the accusations are true (in John Denver's case some are, some manufactured). I'm reminded of Churchill's quip "democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other(s)"--when it comes to libel the Philippine legal system is cumbersome and slow, open to manipulation and corruption. But this is no better.

Watching the film I felt I'd seen this before, a similar if less hi-tech scenario. Then I remembered: Mario O'Hara's chamber drama Bakit Bughaw ang Langit (Why is the Sky Blue) where Babette (Nora Aunor) befriends the mentally handicapped Bobby (Dennis Roldan)--a sad situation that could easily turn lurid under less delicate hands, but also a situation fraught with danger given that the apartment they live in is prone to judging its inhabitants in the local version of the 'court of public opinion'--literally the building complex's central courtyard, where scandals and domestic squabbles burst out of their respective cubbyholes into the open for everyone to see. Bakit Bughaw and John Denver might make for an interesting double feature, showing how social media has accelerated a process that has been part of our society all along, spread tendrils to other countries where families and Filipino communities are found. The final effect is of a stone flung through glass--the deafening crash representing the shuddering shivering shards of what you used to call your life, scattering around you.

The rage and pity the film inspires is much deserved except perhaps in the finale (skip the rest of this paragraph if you haven't seen the film!)--a tribute I think to the skill with which Condez has maintained the tension up to this point: suicide can only release that carefully built tension, put John Denver (tho not his mother) in a position where he is past any further suffering. I would rather for him a bleaker fate--running home only to find his home empty, taking his cue from fellow fugitive Antoine Doinel in Truffaut's The 400 Blows (from which the sequence is clearly inspired) and just keep running, running away from his classmates and community, running into an uncertain future, running into the possibility of even more anguish and humiliation and pain. May be the optimist or sadist in me, but I hope he never stops.

John Denver Trending is a chilling effectively wrought parable that makes me pause before posting a particularly hurtful meme--sometimes I've found myself backing down and hitting 'delete;' sometimes (often when involving Trump or Duterte) I go ahead and post. That pause though I credit to the film, for having that much of an effect on me. One of the best films of the year so far, Filipino or otherwise.

First published in Businessworld 9/6/19

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