John Denver Trending

Virulent, Violent Society

Tito Genova Valiente

Was there another way for the film John Denver Trending to end? In a society – a rural society – where young students are amateur bullies, and local village politicians are unworthy of being called mediators, and teachers seemingly hopeless and helpless against this new world online, despair becomes default. A young boy turns into an instant celebrity and that instantaneity suffuses as well his conversion into a convicted criminal. The absence of due process is a newfound phenomenon, courtesy of a government that is lacking both in decency and moral compass, leaving in its political wake, young boys and girls, old men and women, mothers and fathers terrible losers in a game that is really what life presently is all about now.

Can one ever be happy in Pandan, Antique, or is this just a dreamy location for a film? I ask the question because the film, for all its compelling theme, is situated in a specific place. Can I, an inhabitant of that space, be happy that my place did not offer a safe space for a young boy? The setting of the film is a text. Be careful, the intertextual can murder.

The film John Denver Trending is the story of a young boy who figures in a fight with another boy his age. If we look at it from another perspective, that boy is a bully. But who cares really, that term has been bandied around it has lost its definition already. The fight goes on while a classmate shoots using his cellphone. The video is uploaded, for that is where all images go. Then it goes viral, as all things online become.

John Denver is the new villain. No imagination is necessary. The response is relentless and becomes the other villain. Who is the bully here? We are all bullies. We are all unruly. We are all inhuman.

At home and at school, we see absentee parents and absentee good teachers and officials. Only one teacher is sympathetic; the rest are judgmental viragos. The world – or that unsafe space – has declared the boy as the devil. No one sides with him. The problem though is those who are on the other side does not create a polarity – they do not necessarily hold the Good.

The greater evil though is this: we side with the silent teachers and we are not sympathetic with the mother of John Denver. As the film ends, we see finally a school official. He appears and he is quiet, timid before the relentless technology of the online violence and its mediator, the mobile phone. Here we are being technical when in fact, we do mediate crimes and violations with our own bigotry and narrowmindedness, our hysteria.

Who needs the violent cities? The screenplay of John Denver Trending is doubly exotic in its cinematic decision to locate the narrative in a rural community and not in a city. The sociologists are right – the city does not need to bring urbanization to the towns; the towns get closer to the urbanized settlements because of technologies. The societal implication of the film compels us to re-examine how the new technologies dissipate and blur the old theme of urban versus rural. The “kuko ng liwanag” does not require a city. Isolated, pastoral villages can be trenchant sites of rights being crushed and lives being violated by the mechanisms that we otherwise allude as organic to urbanization.

The difference between the city-based users of cellphones and those in rural high schools is simplistic. All young people know the hurt and harm they can inflict on each other using the social media. The collateral damage in this rancid enterprise is, ironically, in the adults who remain ignorant, technologically challenged. Their morality is linked to old ties: the home is the source of good conduct, the schools reinforce what parents teach their children, and the church (or some other moral institutions) declares in big words the lessons of goodness. But in films, the school is silenced, as are the home and the other institutions, by technologies that owe their strength from an unknown (because we are not techies) universe.

There is another layer in the narrative of John Denver Trending, more complex and more exotic. This has to do with the belief that rural societies contend with unseen and the non-rational. In these communities, witches abound and they cause death. Here in this unsafe space are healers and diviners consorting with forces unseen but greatly sensed.

For all its assumptions, where does the story of John Denver find its resonance? It is in the attempt of the film to craft a tale of bullying and biased judgment in a community that has a different set of logic and reason. The authorities in this space do not merely deal with the facts and truths, they deal with something that is incomplete and out of context. They do so not because they are immoral but because they have not yet been appraised about the proliferation of fake news, and of technologies engendering not only its own truths but also its own authorities. And that the word “viral” owes its virulence in the kindred term, “virus.”

A witch-hunt on several levels happens in the John Denver Trending. The search for a witch or mean man is center to the film. The trope of a witch hunt is localized in John Denver Trending. This metaphor saves the film from the pit even if a stronger light (or darkness) emanates from the film. This light (or the absence of it) is the moralizing, usually misguided and bigoted, assumed in authorities who do not know any better or those quiet individuals who do nothing in the face of cruelty made by adults on children, and children on children.

Let the viewers be cautioned that bullying is just the surface story of John Denver Trending. Hiding and hidden, liminal and submerged, are images urging us to be more critical of cinema. In the hands of its director, Arden Rod Condez, images move and are scrolled up and down before the eyes of John Denver Cabungcal – and our own. We are not witnesses but voyeurs as we gaze at the suspected witch walking at night, of a policeman arresting a young man, of the witch ending by the roadside, of a healer performing rites not of propitiation but of exorcism.

Let us not forget one of the earlier comments made on the video asking that we should not stop sharing the video until it reaches “Digong.”

This is my politics and I do not expect my readers to share this, but I dread the day when our children pin their hope on the administration that is being accused of murdering the children and the marginalized.

For all these negative traits, the film, John Denver Trending remains an important film deserving of our own attention. Meryll Soriano gives a warm performance. Her rendition of a mother all alone – and a stranger – in the town suffuses the character with a pathos. She is the other real tragedy in the film.

Jansen Magpusao as John Denver has been discovered and awarded already as Best Actor in other film concourses. His pauses and troubled glances are for the book. His boy-actor does not bear the mannerism of Manila-based child actors and that is good. He is good enough – enduring and gripping in silence.

External to the film and this review was the reception given by the town of Pandan when the film was brought back to where it was shot. Young boys and girls – friends, fans and enemies of John Denver – and many others lined up along the street waving white flags to welcome the filmmakers and the actors.

The greater question remains though: I wonder if the proud welcoming “pumuluyo” (citizens and inhabitants) of Pandan ever talk among themselves what the film John Denver has told us: that a society, which does not examine its thoughts properly can be a violent, murderous, malevolent society.

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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