JOHN DENVER TRENDING: THE LOCAL IS UNIVERSAL
Nicanor G. Tiongson
John Denver Trending is a small and simple film, whose advocacies and artistry have created bigger and wider ripples, from the local to the national to the international scene, since it won best picture at the 2019 CInemalaya Independent Film Festival . It tells an unsettling tale of truth denied and humanity betrayed.
In a Catholic school in Pandan, Antique, John Denver (JD) Cabungcal, a dirt-poor boy of 14, is accused by his classmate Makoy of stealing the latter’s IPAD. JD flatly denies it, so Makoy grabs JD’s backpack, brings it to a building rooftop to examine its contents. Amidst heckling of classmates, JD pulls at the bag, but Makoy refuses to release it; so JD deals Makoy a few well-aimed blows. Makoy lets go, and JD runs away with two classmate friends, to whom he later shows the contents of his bag – none of which is an IPAD. Unknown to JD, however, another classmate and Makoy’s friend Carlos recorded the fight and in a few hours is already uploading both the video and a picture of Makoy’s battered face, identifying JD as the bully and villain in the school incident. The next day, the school principal holds a meeting in her office, where Makoy’s mother demands that JD return the IPAD, which she claims cost Makoy’s father the equivalent of 45,000 pesos in Saudi currency. Carlos and the other students also testify against JD. When JD stubbornly refuses to admit to the crime, the policeman-neighbour of Makoy’s mother tries to bully him into a confession, but the principal intervenes, saying the school is her jurisdiction, not the policeman’s. The principal then decides to invite JD’s mother to the meeting.
JD had tried to keep the IPAD incident to himself, to spare his mother Maritess, who already had more than enough to bear, making bags of buri and working at the koprahan of Mang Mando to support her three children after the death of her solider husband. But now JD, accompanied by the pesky policeman, has no alternative but to tell his mother the whole story. At the principal’s office, Maritess fiercely defends her son against all accusations, insisting nobody actually saw JD take the IPAD. But a male teacher declares JD is capable of such brutality and theft, because he had records of JD hitting another boy in the past and of stealing a girl’s lunch. Surprised by the last two incidents, Maritess turns to JD and slaps him for the malfeasances. The principal then mentions the possibility of suspending JD from school, but Maritess counters that if JD is suspended, Makoy should also be suspended for instigating the brawl in the first place..
Pressured to take action on the incident, the school announces that it has formed a fact-finding committee to investigate the matter. But the demonization of JD has already gone wild on Facebook, with people calling him names, telling him to go back to his mother’s vagina, and posting pictures of the him with the fangs of an aswang. He is ostracized, the way an elderly woman, Dolores, was being ostracized by her barrio mates as the aswang who hexed a barrrio boy to death. In school, most of the students are “convinced” of JD’s guilt, so one day, JD is attacked and beaten up by a gang of students. JD begs his mother to allow him to stop going to school. Initially, Maritess agrees, but she does not give up on the IPAD problem. She herself investigates the places related to the IPAD incident and realizes the room is accessible to anyone. Through the barrio captain, Maritess is able to present her findings to the mayor and ask him to intervene in the conflict. To solve the impasse, the mayor pays off a total of 20,000 pesos to Makoy’s mother for her to quit the case.
But the persecution continues — with a Filipino father in Canada challenging JD’s father to a fist fight because he did not raise his son JD well, with Maritess being hit on the head by a stone from out of nowhere when she and JD deliver buri bags to her customers in a resort, and with gossips feasting on the incident even in Manila radio stations. The night before the fateful day, Maritess decides to send JD back to school, thinking that the mayor had solved the problem. What she and JD do not know, however, is that Mang Mando has been interviewed by JD’s enemies and has made statements about JD’s case, which were later deviously edited to make it sound like Mang Mando actually saw JD get the IPAD. In blissful ignorance of this trap, Maritess and her children sit around a fire, each blithely nibbling on a bar of Cloud 9. That same night, JD reads the latest hate mail, gets up from his cot, looks lovingly at his mother and two siblings sleeping on one bed, goes out of the house, and walks between the trees to the river, where he watches a carabao bathing in the moonlight.
The next morning, Maritess escorts JD to the corner of the road where he can take a tricycle. At the corner, as he rides away, JD sees a small crowd of people looking at the lifeless body of Dolores, the “aswang.” At the school gate, JD is confronted by a contingent of the town’s power personalities – the parish priest, the police officer, the principal, the teacher, the social worker. The policeman then shows JD the edited video of Mang Mando, who says a) that in January of 2019, JD had exploded a firecracker near Mando’s carabao, which wounded and eventually infected and killed the carabao, b) that Mando and Maritess agreed that the cost of the carabao, namely, 25,000, pesos would be paid by Maritess at 200 pesos worth of work a day until the whole amount is paid, and c) (the edited portion) that he saw JD take the IPAD which Mando is certain the boy will sell to help cover the debt to Mang Mando. With this fresh and “firm” evidence against the boy, the social worker and the policeman bring JD to the police precinct. There he is supposed to wait for his mother, who they say had already been informed by a messenger to come to the precinct for the investigation. As JD sits nervously in a room alone, the policeman secretly enters, sits on a chair opposite JD, and tries to get JD to admit to the “crime.” First, he tells JD that the authorities just want to help, not punish, him, as long as he confesses. When JD insists on his innocence, the policeman harshly reminds the boy of the new evidence from Mang Mando and tells him there is no way out. After the second denial, the policeman puts his revolver on the table, pins JD on his chair with his knees, and cruelly reveals to JD that he has been expelled from his school and JD has no choice but to own up to the crime, because the police and the accusers cannot be proven wrong.
JD is completely unnerved by the vicious bullying, so that when the policeman leaves the room to attend to something, JD decides to escape, hurriedly takes a tricycle home, runs on the long cement road, takes a short cut across the fields, crying “Nay, Nay.” But when he gets to the house, the house is empty. Meanwhile, the sounds of police sirens are heard in the distance. JD slowly takes off his shoes and socks, and takes something from one corner of the house. Meanwhile, the camera cuts to the program of dances and songs — but with audio removed– which is ongoing at JD’s school, with all the students and the bigwig judges watching and wildly enjoying the student offerings for Director’s Day, including the number featuring Makoy (still with black marks on his face) and his friends, the same dance number that was being rehearsed at the beginning of the film with JD in it. Then the camera cuts back to the bare feet of JD’s body hanging from the house rafter. Meanwhile, Maritess, who had arrived earlier at the school looking for her son, is now being escorted out of the school gate by a kindly teacher who says JD must have gone home ahead of her. As the audience hears the students singing a song praising the Virgin Mary as the model woman and mother, Maritess walks distractedly on the long cement road, not knowing what lies waiting for her at home.
Central to the movie is the indictment of the negative ways in which social media, specifically, Facebook and the internet, has affected provincial communities in the Philippines. Pulling no punches, the film reveals how this potent means of communicating vital information to individuals in the country and all over the world has been perverted by the irresponsible and cynical into a way of creating lies and disseminating misinformation to the same individuals. Carlos made a video of the fight and was quick enough to upload it, so his version of the incident, an outright lie, becomes entrenched as the truth. And because the pictures of a battered Makoy stoke feelings of pity and rage, droves of Facebook followers jump to the conclusion that Carlos should be believed and JD condemned. But worse than this is the most blatant abuse of the new media shown in the film — the outright and deliberate misrepresentation of the “truth” perpetrated by unknown, but definitely malicious, hands which edit the interview of Mang Mando to turn it into a damning evidence of guilt for JD, without the interviewee’s knowledge or permission.
And who must suffer the consequences of this vicious twisting of the facts? Those who do not have the means to buy the new technology and the wherewithal to turn it to their own advantage. In a word, the poor. From the start the cards are stacked against JD because his underwear has holes, he cannot afford expensive cellphones and IPADs, he lives in a far-away backward barrio, he has to steal food from a girl’s lunchbox because he does not have enough to eat, and he has only one uniform. So hardly anyone is even disposed to question the accusations against JD, much less take up the cudgels for him when one false testimony after another starts to appear on Facebook. In the same vein, for all of Maritess’s righteous anger and moving defense of her son, no one really gives valence to the words of a basket maker and kopra labourer, who leads a hand to mouth existence. As often happens, the “truth” will favour those who can afford to buy, rewrite or manufacture it.
Aside from the abuse of social media, the film also reveals how fear is employed by those in power or in positions of authority to control the people in a community and to make sure that they do not transgress the rules and regulations laid down by the established authorities, even if these rules and regulations violate or diminish the rights of the people. First, fear is created by identifying certain individuals as weird or abnormal, different from the rest of us. This process of “othering” is sometimes so ingrained in the common mind that it becomes natural, such as the way the “poor” are, more often than not, automatically associated with dirt, duplicity, and thievery. Often, “othering” also discovers ways to conflate the “other” with the most traditionally hated or feared beings, such as the predatory and horrific aswang or witch. Second, fear of the “other” is always presented as the reverse of a positive respect for those that society has anointed as leaders of the community, i.e., those at the top of the socio-economic and political hierarchy. The perfect example of how authorities instill fear in one “othered” because of his poverty is the scene where, from a low angle, the boy JD looks up to and is overwhelmed by the most “respected” figures of authority in the town – the priest, the police, the school principal and senior teachers, the social worker. As events begin to turn one by one against JD, his fear gradually turns into terror, which hounds him to his tragic end.
To enrich the story further, the film critically contextualizes the IPAD incident, the witch hunt, and the final entrapment of an innocent boy within the religious belief system of this very Catholic town. The theft and inquisitorial investigations transpire in a Catholic School. This school is aptly named Santa Ines, after Saint Agnes of Rome, a young girl from the Roman nobility who fought for her purity and was brutally beheaded by Diocletian’s soldiers for her refusal to turn her back on Christianity – both a parallel and contrast to the eponymous protagonist of our film. In the principal’s office hangs a big reproduction of an icon of the Madonna and child, a portrait of maternal love and care, a theme echoed by Maritess and her son JD but negated by the behaviour of school authorities toward JD . Behind the principal’s desk to her right is an almost life-size figure of the crucified Christ, an allusion perhaps to JD who is also being “crucified” for a sin he did not even commit, under the auspices ironically of the “exemplary” Christian leaders of the school and town. Finally, it is ironic that in a town where all persons and vehicles on the streets stop automatically to recite the Angelus at 6 pm and where families devoutly kneel to recite the rosary before home altars crowded with Christian images, most Catholics see nothing wrong in falsely accusing and persecuting a boy whom they have prejudged as guilty of theft because he is poor and powerless, precisely the sort of person that Christ would have defended against the hypocritical Pharisees.
Another layer of meanings is established when the film deliberately plants images and sounds associated with nation and patriotism in specific scenes. Big or small Philippine flags are prominently displayed in the covered courts where the students rehearse their dance number, in the principal’s office, in the police precinct, and even on a tricycle. In one flag ceremony, the students recite the Panatang Makabayan, and in another, sing “Plipinas Kong Mahal.” But here, the “love for country,” “freedom,” and “justice” symbolized by the flags and professed by the oath and song are shown to be vacuous and worthless because seldom honoured in the practice of our daily lives. For example, as the Panatang Makabayan is being recited by rows and rows of students in front of the flag, Makoy’s mother and a policeman enter the school premises looking for JD, whom they have already prejudged as guilty of the theft of Makoy’s IPAD. Likewise, the patriotic “Pilipinas Kong Mahal” being sung by the students in school is used as the non-diegetic background music to accompany JD’s escape from the traumatic investigation at the police station, as he rides a speeding tricycle flying a small Philippine flag. The film would seem to imply that many Filipinos habitually perform the rituals expressing love of country, justice, and truth but these prescribed gestures are often nothing but patriotic pretensions.
But all these valuable and timely insights into modern technology and Philippine society would have come to naught without the intricate, albeit unobtrusive, artistry of the film. Inspired by an actual incident of bullying in Negros, the writer-director narrates his own fictive story of cyberbullying through sequences that look simple and uneventful but are actually as complex and multi-layered as his themes. Consider this quiet unprepossessing night sequence and its sub-scenes. After getting off from the tricycle, Maritess carrying a big plastic bag and JD with a backpack are walking home on a long cement road. The road is intermittently lighted between long distances by a few lamp posts. First they meet the elderly woman Dolores in blue dress with a distracted look and dishevelled hair, who passes them with neither glance, smile or word of greeting. Further down they come upon a makeshift store where the lady owner Janet, asks Maritess, in front of the kapitan who parked his motor bike to buy something, if she saw Dolores (the woman in blue dress who just passed them by). Janet is sure she is an aswang but the Kapitan advices her not to rush to conclusions without proof. Janet will not listen; instead, she tells her two children to go on home so they can burn an old tire to ward off the bad luck that Dolores may have left in their house. After saying farewell, Maritess and JD proceed down the road until they arrive at the koprahan where Maritess helps dry kopra for the dealer Mang Mando. Surprisingly, Mang Mando is awake and has been waiting for Maritess because he needs to unload the sacks of kopra from a jeep. Maritess demurs but when Mang Mando promises to deduct 200 pesos from her debt to him, Maritess agrees, hands over her plastic bag to JD, and tells him to go meet his siblings at his auntie’s house. JD hesitates, she snaps at him, but he brings out a piece of candy that he had saved for her. She smiles as JD puts the candy into her mouth. JD then walks home alone, passing by the tire that the children are burning to ward off the spirit of the aswang Dolores. The fire throws off flying embers and casts an intense light on JD’s face and body.
In the space of about three minutes, the sequence has given us ample data about the characters and given us a premonition of what might happen to them in the future. We get to know a) Maritess who seems harsh but has a loving relationship with her son, who is not prone to gossip about other people, and who will push herself to lessen her debt to Mang Mando; b) JD who loves his mother and is very supportive of her; c) Mang Mando whose life is his copra business; d) Janet who loves to gossip and judge other people; e) the kapitan who is rational and level-headed (it is he who helps Maritess later on); and f) the woman Dolores, who is enigmatic and not sociable, a perfect target for gossips. We are also given an inkling on how idle simpletons like Janet are quick to use the label aswang on people they do not like, which is exactly what will happen to JD, and how people who are considered “other” or abnormal are killed, or burned like witches, which establishes the parallelism between Dolores and JD and their respective tragic endings. From one short sequence, we meet the characters and encounter the folk mentality that will prove fatal to two of these characters.
A notable achievement of the cinematography is its ability to narrate what is happening in a scene and establish the relationships between characters, not with words but with brilliant framing and composition. In one scene, JD, with the policeman, fetches his mother from the koprahan to attend the meeting at the principal’s office. Maritess still does not know about the IPAD incident. When JD enters the koprahan, the cinematographer uses deep focus and long take, first with JD (back to the camera) on the foreground, Mang Mando making his lists at the middle ground, and Maritess in the background absorbed in her work. Close ups of JD, then Maritess are inserted, each one speaking with their eyes. Then the camera goes on reverse position, taking Maritess’s POV and we see the back of Maritess on the foreground, Mang Mando near foreground, JD in the background, and at extreme background the hazy but threatening figure of the policeman. These well-planned shots combined with subtle acting allow us to read the thoughts and feelings of the characters, making dialogue redundant.
A similar reverse movement of the camera is used in the twin shots of the laundry scene. The first deep focus shot shows JD on foreground, about to burst with anger and frustration at the latest tweets on Facebook, as he harvests the laundry from the line outside the house, with the door of the house visible in the background and Maritess tidying up in front of the bamboo-grilled window to the left of the door. Unable to contain his emotion but wanting to keep it secret from his mother, JD runs, arms full of laundry, to the house and quickly enters the door. This shot is sharply followed by a reverse long shot inside the house, showing JD, now hiding behind the narrow wall between the door and the window, crying into the mound of laundry to muffle his moans and make them inaudible to his mother, whom we see calmly tidying up behind the grilled window. This wide shot captures the whole door, the wall, and window, as well as the big picture of the Pieta (with the Virgin holding the body of her dead son) right behind JD’s head.
Another brilliant scene which captures layers of meaning in one beautifully framed shot is that where a) in the background seen through the open door is the maaram (allegedly, a real shaman) on his knees, asking the spirit of Johnny to move on while he beats two sticks on the cement floor, b) while the maaram’s male assistant stands at the doorway beating the empty wooden mortar with a long wooden pestle, and c) JD is on foreground texting friends to say he did not steal the IPAD. Here the percussive sounds of the maaram’s sticks alternating with the assistant’s striking of the mortar with the pestle is punctuated with the metal sounds of JD’s cellphone, an almost delightful orchestration of sounds that belie the darkness that awaits JD. The same maaram will be consulted by Makoy’s mother and will identify JD as the one who stole the IPAD.
Editing allows scenes with long takes to grow to their fullness, as in the sequence where Maritess and JD walk home at night. But when a scene needs to be shortened or elided or connected seamlessly to another scene, the editor finds imaginative ways to do his job without jarring the viewer. A technique that is used very well is the match shot. After Maritess and family arrive in their own house at night, the plates are laid out while JD takes off his one and only shirt and leaves it on the bed. The next scene, which is already after dinner, starts with the identical shot of the shirt, which JD now picks up and brings to the banggera to wash for the next day. Another technique is to bridge two consecutive scenes that are related through metaphor. For example, the scene which shows JD being beaten up by a gang of students is connected to the scene which starts with a close up of the hands of Maritess beating a bundle of buri to straighten them out.
Perfect is the choice of Pandan, Antique as the setting for a narrative about the power of technology being misused by small town inhabitants, who are simultaneously techie and parochial. The town is typical of a Catholic provincial town. It has a church and plaza, a Catholic school with students in white uniforms, a police precinct with a small jail and a clutch of policemen, a public covered courts for basketball tournaments, a tiangue with many stalls and a few commercial buildings, a few two-story houses, cemented main roads as well as unpaved secondary roads, all animated by tricycles, jeepneys, and private cars. The people on the streets are middle and lower class, going about their businesses in daytime but promptly heading for home at angelus time. Many inhabitants live in the outlying barrios where families live on the rice lands they till. Catholicism is the official religion but belief in aswangs and maarams persist, especially among the rural folk. What seemed to have been added by the production designers are the flags placed in strategic places, and the religious images displayed prominently in the principal’s office (the crucifix and icon of the Madonna cuddling the Baby Jesus) and in the house of Maritess (a frame showing the counterpart of the Madonna and Child, Mary cuddling the dead body of her son).
Following a tenet of Neo-Realism which uses as actors the people found on location and minding the imperatives of budget, time, and convenience, the film uses, almost exclusively, the actual inhabitants of Pandan, Antique. But neophytes as most of them are, the production did a good job of training them for their various roles. The result is ensemble acting that is both believable and quite commendable. Of the local non-actors, the most outstanding of course is Jansen Magpusao who plays John Denver. For someone who has never acted before, Magpusao renders a notable performance as JD. With his large expressive eyes, he is able to communicate a range of emotions, even without dialogue – from anger to love, from fear to joy, from reticence to belligerence. Allegedly, he drew his own reactions and emotional responses from the experience of a friend who was badly bullied. And, indeed, his acting was really effective, until he got to the most crucial scenes – the confrontation with authority figures at the gate of the school, the bullying of the aggressive policeman at the station, his hurried escape on a tricycle, his dash for home, and arrival at an empty house. In these scenes, his acting could not adequately communicate the character’s utter helplessness and frustration that gradually leads to panic, then desperation, and finally self-destruction. Because of this, the final act of self-immolation comes off as too sudden, unprepared for, not believable, especially since we know he was secure in his mother’s love and there were no prior indications that JD could be depressive or imbalanced or was capable of hurting himself if trapped or cornered. It is said that some viewers have objected to this ending for being without hope (the director says he merely followed the conclusion of the story of the boy from Negros). We believe the problem is not in the conclusion per se but in the deficiency in both the characterization and the acting that could have invested such conclusion with logic and credibility.
Meryll Soriano, as expected, delivers a strong and credible performance as JD’s mother – self-sacrificing without being melodramatic, incapable of malice toward anyone but ferocious as a lioness if her child is threatened or falsely accused. Her outbursts of anger at the principal’s office and at the meeting with the mayor hit their mark, being properly motivated. Her breakdown after the mayor’s meeting as she walks on the beach with JD is quiet and extended and utterly moving. Her silence as she eats the bar of Cloud 9 with her children in front of a fire is eloquent. Her walk from the school, with trepidation about what she might find when she gets to her house, is pathetic and unsettling. But for all that, one still wishes that the script had given her a more detailed back story. There are initial references to Angeles as her hometown but there is no information on her own family nor on how she got to Pandan, how she met her husband, what her husband was like, how her husband died, why she stays in Pandan even after her husband’s death. This glitch in the screenplay somehow detracts from the wholeness of the character and our belief in it, which is a real pity in a movie that is generally marked by authenticity – in casting, dialogue, production design, and the psychological make-up of the other characters.
For its insights into the impact of new media on a traditional provincial community and its finely crafted filmmaking, John Denver Trending has made waves in the local, national, and international scene. Small films like this are the Davids that can stand to the giant that is Hollywood, because they firmly and unapologetically stand on their own cultural standards.
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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