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John Denver Trending: This is what indie is all about

Overall, if you can afford to pay for shitty Vice Ganda or Vic Sotto films (or most of the Metro Manila Film Festival entries, for that matter!), surely there ought to be room for you for one with something more to say, as in the case of “John Denver Trending”.

Okay, tackling cyberbullying in flicks isn’t new – e.g. Cyberbully (2011 version was, for me, better), A Girl Like Her, 13 Reasons Why and Audrie & Daisy – so this is a well-trodden narrative. But this does not make this not relevant (including in the Philippines) – e.g. in 2013, in Batangas City, a 14-year-old boy shot himself inside their house after allegedly experiencing consistent cyberbullying from his classmates (the bullies even had a secret Facebook chat group where the members called the boy, among others, gay and idle).

And so Arden Rod Condez’s John Denver Trending is… a needed telling. Good thing the flick was done in a good way…

WHAT IT’S ABOUT

John Denver Trending tells the story of – obviously! – John Denver (Jansen Magpusao), a 14-year-old farmboy who was recorded on video while physically attacking a classmate. When the video was uploaded, it highlighted humanity’s many flaws – e.g. jumping to conclusions without knowing the full story, people joining fights they have no part of, dissonance of the adult-youth worlds, adult insensitivity to children’s issues, idiocy of adults particularly those in positions of power, and so on… leading to a tragic end.

WHY WATCH IT

The theme.

Condez’s interest in bullying/cyberbullying started after he heard of a similar case in the news, and “I thought someone should tell this story.”

The thing is, the DepEd actually already includes cyberbullying as among the no-no acts/practices that ought to be sanctioned in the Anti-bullying Act of 2013. And yet ensuring the law is followed remains tricky – e.g. school officials themselves are some of the biggest bullies (and not included in the implementing rules and regulations of the existing law), just as monitoring how every student acts is, well, impossible (if not illegal) so that we end up with cases like that suicide of a student in a Catholic school in Batangas City.

And so, yes, this theme remains relevant.

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Chatting with Merryl Soriano, here playing John Denver’s mother, I asked what made her decide to do this film. “Because my son was also bullied,” she said, noting how “this made this story important for me to tell.”

Bullying, said Merryl, is tricky because “it can be ‘innocent’ at first, and can even come from (close) friends. But then it becomes an impactful experience.”

And particularly with children, “parents don’t know the full story (of their children). So they should always talk to their children… to filter these stories, and thereby avoid (something like this – bullying – from happening).”

The acting.

For John Denver Trending, Condez opted for non-prof actors. Here’s the thing: Now and then, hiring non-actors to go in front of the camera pays off – BIG TIME. It worked in The Bicycle Thief, The Florida Project, The Rider, Dayveon, Ponette, Clerks, Gomorrah, I am Cuba and The Killing Fields (at least Haing S. Ngor, who won an Oscar for his performance). And it certainly worked here.

I’d credit the director here. Because if the more experienced filmmaker John Paul Bedia wasn’t able to prevent some of his extras from stealing a look at the panning camera in Edward, then at least we don’t see the same here. And if many of the characters in Eduardo Roy Jr.’s F#*@BOIS were too-aware that “We’re in a film, y’all!”, at least here you don’t get that.

Nuanced acting comes to mind, so that (among others) you feel John Denver’s restlessness (just as you should); and the mother being testy with, well, the world.

The cast also included: Glenn Mas, Sammy Rubido, Vince Philip Alegre, Jofranz Ambubuyog, Christian Alarcon, Zandro Leo Canlog, Andy Yuarata, Ricky Perez, Renato Sagot, Enrique Sanchez, Bert Briones, Elmer Yuarata, Eldin Labris, Sunshine Teodoro, Luz Venus, Estela Patino, Joerlyn Samulde, Akia Buenaflor, Shan Estoya and Jinalyn Tandoy

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No preaching here.

Maricel Cariaga’s Children of the River was somewhat annoying because it was preachy; heck, Jay Manalo’s role was there to do just this (i.e. preach). We fortunately don’t get that here. Instead, the story is just laid for us; it’s your call how you want to react (e.g. be annoyed, feel helpless, and so on).

The stylistic choices.

In F#*@BOIS, we see some of the characters use social networking sites to pretend-show to us that they’re fuckbois (idiotically, as if parading online is the only thing fuckbois do). There, it failed because it didn’t really tackle its namesake (i.e. fuckbois); as if the name/title was used only accidentally so the director can can then use the same in the film’s title. But here, in John Denver Trending, this was effectively used to help propel the story. And so seriously – the director of the former may be in the industry longer, but he sure can learn from the latter.

Others involved in the film’s production were:
Cinematography: Rommel Sales
Production design: Harley Alcasid
Editing: Benjo Ferrer III
Original music score: Len Calvo
Sound: Mikko Quizon, Kat Salinas

WHY AVOID IT

I say: Don’t.

But of course, this is entirely up to the viewers, particularly since this is not a perfectly-polished flick.

Some too-dark scenes.

The limitations of the equipment used is made very apparent by some of the dark scenes where you don’t even see what’s really happening (e.g. that walk home, with the carabao being dragged by a farmer).

Idiotic characterizations.

When I was bullied in high school, I went to the guidance counselor, who told me to the principal’s office, where I was told it was my choice I was bullied because I am “effeminate”. I know that things may still have not changed now; but the adult characters (except for the mother, obviously) were made to be plain idiotic, not because it may be true, but because the film just needed to tell the tale in as bad way as possible to get to its tragic end.

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There’s that “enemy” of John Denver, too, who was not truly developed so we never understood why he was just that angry with his classmate.

Wrong/unnecessary elements.

For instance, the two siblings were there, and it would have been interesting also to know what they went through when their elder brother was bullied. Were they also bullied? How are they coping with what’s happening? Instead, we don’t see them do anything but… eat; and then chow down Cloud 9 (a chocolate bar) while seemingly murmuring with each other, as if embarrassed to be seen in front of a camera.

For a province-based film, this is still Manila-centric.

Bullying is a social issue that affects everyone (worsened by social media). As such, it needs a more holistic and – yes – encompassing solution. My beef with this is this: At the end of the film, flashed is a hotline for those who may be experiencing bullying. But if you can provide a hotline ONLY for those in Manila (or those with access to technology, e.g. smartphone), then you won’t make that big of a big dent in dealing with bullying.

IN THE END

When asked to define “indie”, many (particularly newer) filmmakers tend to say: Low budget. And in a way, this is true. But being indie goes beyond this; it more pertinently refers to a story or a way of telling that mainstream flicks won’t do (because they may not earn). And here, John Denver Trending qualifies. As an indie film; and one that ought to be checked at that.

Overall, if you can afford to pay for shitty Vice Ganda or Vic Sotto films (or most of the Metro Manila Film Festival entries, for that matter!), surely there ought to be room for you for one with something more to say, as in the case of John Denver Trending.

Magpusao (who played John Denver) said to me that, for those who experience bullying, “kung ano man ang pinagdaanan ninyo, kung ano man ang ginagawa sa inyo, gawin nyo na lang inspirasyon.”

Hopefully, John Denver Trending becomes that, too…

We believe that just because one is popular, doesn\'t mean it merits that popularity. There are many at the fringes also meriting attention, though do not have the means to means/know-how to be so. And so here we are, celebrating everything... artistic life from the fringes.

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