Critic After Dark

John Denver Trending
Directed by Arden Rod Condez

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 on-camera (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 away from him to look for the stolen good. John Denver snaps; he knocks the snatcher down and beats him, and this last — fateful act — is recorded, posted online, goes viral.

You can see where this is going. Condez’s achievement is to depict the rippling effect of John Denver’s impulsive act of vengeance throughout the town, a collective state of willful insanity strong enough and persistent enough to weary the soul and break the spirit.

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 online 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 of him in a makeshift shrine); they have each other (and a sister, sitting in the sidelines) and no one else.

And John Denver isn’t exactly cybersavvy, or sophisticated, or financially or 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 at least have their wealth to console them, families like John Denver’s have little to none. His mother, aside from earning 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 later died of an infection. Was her son really responsible? Who knows? Marites wasn’t in a position to argue. The margin between survival and ruin for the poor is razor-thin, and John Denver has little room to do much of anything — to play, to goof off, to be an ordinary boy.

Nice touch, by the way, Condez naming his protagonist “John Denver” — the kind of faintly 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 coherently so that you get the cumulative sense of various fingers busy on various keyboards, 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 at him or whisper behind his back or someone run past smacking him upside in the head. Maybe worse.

Condez makes the case that cyberbullying is wrong, not necessarily because you might be tormenting an innocent — John Denver has been guilty of past indiscretions — but because the victim has little chance to fight back. Attackers are mostly anonymous, with only a 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 flagrantly manufactured). I’m reminded of Churchill’s quip “democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other(s)” — the Philippine legal system with regards to libel cases is cumbersome and slow, prone to manipulation by those with the cash to manipulate, but this is no better.

Philippine culture is a culture of connections, with everyone and his cousin’s sister-in-law’s younger brother getting into everyone else’s (and their mother’s) business; what social media has apparently done is exacerbate the tendency, extending tendrils to family and Filipino communities in other countries, so that one provocative video has the worldwide effect of a stone flung through sheet glass — a loud shattering crash of what you used to call your life.

The rage and pity the film inspires is very much deserved except perhaps for the finale (skip the rest of this paragraph if you haven’t seen the film!) which I think is a tribute to the skill with which Condez has maintained tension up to this point: suicide releases that carefully built tension, puts John Denver (though not his mother) past any further suffering. I would have rather seen a more ambiguous end — him running home, finding the house empty, maybe running on to an uncertain future, to suffer even more humiliation and anguish. May be the sadist in me speaking, but that’s my two cents.

John Denver Trending is a chilling effectively wrought parable that makes one pause before posting a particularly hurtful meme — the film at least made me mull that much on the issue (I’ve sometimes found myself backing down and deleting the meme; sometimes — mostly when it involves Trump or Duterte — I post anyway). One of the best films of the year so far, Filipino or otherwise.

John Denver Trending is being shown along with other Cinemalaya Films at the UPFI Film Center in UP Diliman until Sept. 14. Visit the UPFI Facebook page for schedules.