John Denver Trending

John Denver Trending (2019), dir. Arden Rod Condez

John Denver Trending: Hated by the Nation

Shirley O. Lua

What does “trending” mean in this age of social media? It means that a particular subject in so short a time rises to become the current hot item. It means this item is followed and judged by a monstrous number of virtual public eyes.

John Denver Trending, directed by Arden Rod Condez, is an outstanding film about the vast influence of social media in our life. The story takes place in Pandan, Antique, a small rustic town by the sea. Some Grade-8 boys in Sta. Inez Catholic High School are practicing their dance steps for the Director’s Day performance. Teased by his classmates for his inability to keep up with the steps, John Denver Cabungcal (Jansen Magpusao) leaves in a vex. On his way out, he is waylaid and accused of stealing an IPad. Makoy Pascual (Vince Philip Alegre) grabs John Denver’s backpack, runs to the rooftop, and rummages through the bag. John Denver retaliates by pushing back Makoy and kicking him, as he retrieves his bag. His retaliation is unfortunately recorded through a mobile phone by another classmate Carlos Samulde (Jofranz Ambubuyog), who uploads the video on Facebook and calls John Denver a thief, a bully, and a demon. His post baits the virtual to “LIKE AND SHARE GANG MAKARATING KAY TATAY DIGONG” (Like and share till it reaches Father Digong, President of the Philippines). It goes madly viral.

People of the Philippines vs. John Denver is an instant hit. John Denver becomes the butt of everyone’s hostility, including the mayor and the mass media. His photo, shared and reposted by gleeful clicks, is colored with devil’s horns and goatee. “Why waste time investigating when we know the truth?” is the online cry of outrage. An FB page is created to condemn John Denver as thief and expose “this evil.” In school, a mob of older boys physically assaults him. From Saudi, Makoy’s father, who gave the IPad to his son, furiously posts, “Ito ang sinakripisyo naming mga bagong bayani sa ibang bansa” (This is the sacrifice of our new heroes in other countries). Another post from Canada makes an “I challenge the father of the bully” statement.

John Denver, his hard-working mother Marites (Meryll Soriano) and two siblings live simply in a barrio, remotely far from the town. They owe Mando (Glenn Mas) a tremendous debt, because of John Denver’s accidental killing of Mando’s carabao with a firecracker. Mando’s “testimony” posted on FB by a fake news creator seals the fate of John Denver. The boy is picked up by the social welfare personnel and harassed by the police, against the backdrop of the students singing “Bayan Ko” (Our Nation).

The ending, carefully-executed, shows an aural-visual montage of howling wind, a stretch of field, amplified sound of furniture and movement, silent screenshots of the school, happy faces watching the Director’s Day dance, John Denver’s mother hurrying away from school, and the song prayer of Hail Mary. As the credits roll, “Bayan Ko” is repeated.

Magpusao gives a wonderfully restrained and sensitive performance as the troubled John Denver. At intervals, the camera shots frame the intensity of the boy’s increasing fear, shame, and despair, using verbal reticence to underscore deep emotional resonance, disturbing the spectators with the film’s callous finale.

Trending is not a new practice. The old folks simper together and gossip about their neighbors. This human frailty is depicted in the film through a subplot, the barrio’s incessant chatter of Dolores (Estela Patino), rumored to be a witch who inflicts curses. An old man goes around at night, chanting to ward off evil. Dolores is later found dead, by the roadside.

Social media were invented to make efficient communication, connect people, and foster friendships across the earth. Ironically, its Hydean nature, as likewise seen in a Black Mirror episode “Hated in the Nation,” creeps out and exposes a human culture of eager vile impulses and incomprehensible animosity, where people relish in throwing hate remarks at others, as an exercise of free speech, and posting #DeathTo tags as a casual act of joke. This communal witch-hunt reflects the kind of people they are, the level of perception they have. People believe what they want to believe. People rejoice in the downfall of another. People are not interested in the truth, only in what they deem the truth. Anyone can create truth.

John Denver Trending attempts to go beyond the individual problem. It alludes to several socio-political issues, such as the proposed bill to jail children “criminals,” the question of Yolanda funds, the drug war fiasco, and police abuse, among others. These have been controversial topics pounced on by the social media hounds.

The film attempts to build a multitude of factors that might have driven John Denver to hang himself—aside from the cyberbullying, the school’s disinclination to support him in the midst of public pressures, his classmates’ meanness even before the incident, the village’s passion for rumor-mongering, his mother’s seemingly futile efforts to resolve the situation, the quick censure by the media, police brutality, among others. John Denver’s inevitable choice seems tolerable, in some sense, a fitting conclusion in the face of troubles in our native land. A question infuriatingly crosses our mind though: How culpable is everyone in the death of John Denver?

The film leaves us the spectators moved but dissatisfied. Could it have argued for a different ending for John Denver, instead of overstating a predictable reality? Could it have transcended the possible reality to drastically project a healthier reality, how a person’s life, or our lives, can be altered, for the better. More than reiterating the injustices evident in our society today, the film should strive for a potential justice, perhaps even a likely redemption.

Indeed, this is a sad story of a boy. But more than that, this is a tragic picture of a society, spiked with apathy and sanctimoniousness. Disconcerting is the boy witness’ insistence on John Denver’s crime, without a tiny measure of guilt or doubt, and the triumph of such nastiness, if not evil, in this world. More unsettling are the portraits of hate and aggression emanating from social media—this terrible “online shitstorm.” The film closes with a statement “We are here to help you,” by the Philippine Mental Health Association. May we ask, for whom is this call—the John Denvers out there, or the community of self-gratified social media bashers?

JOHN DENVER TRENDING (2019) Direction and Screenplay: Arden Rod Condez. Editing: Benjo Ferrer. Production Design: Harley Alcasid. Cinematography: Rommel Sales. Sound: Mikko Quizon and Kat Salinas. Music: Len Calvo. Cast: Jansen Magpusao, Meryll Soriano, Glenn Mas, Sunshine Teodoro, Sammy Rubido, Jofranz Ambubuyog. Producer: Cinemalaya, What If Films Philippines, Southern Lantern Studios, Tinker Bulb Productions, Outpost Visual Frontier. Running Time: 1:36:02

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