It’s not just a coincidence that the two best films of this year’s Cinemalaya* Philippine Independent Film Festival, John Denver Trending, and F***bois deal with the same topic in a country (the Philippines) where the internet is being used with greater intensity than in other countries of South-East Asia: the dark sides of internet and how it can destroy lives and careers.
In John Denver Trending, an amazing debut feature by newcomer Arden Rod Condez, the main character is a grade 8 student, John Denver Cabungcal (superbly embodied by young actor Jansen Magpusao) , who has a regular “normal” life at school and at home, until some malevolent classmates accuse him of stealing another boy’s I-pad (which is never proved…). In spite of his claims of innocence and good faith, the boys persist and start grabbing him. John then assaults one of his accusers, but, unfortunately, another boy records the fight on his phone and posts the video on the social network, without balancing the actual facts. It becomes a kind of “evidence” for everyone else. This is the start of a personal and social nightmare for John Denver, who is accused of theft by almost anyone, bullied by most of his fellow students, and becomes the helpless viral victim of a huge manipulation on the Net. Unable to prove his innocence, in spite of the countless efforts of his strong willed mother (Meryll Soriano), he eventually takes his own life. This last twist is a source of ambiguity, as the young boy’s desperate act might lead most people to believe that he was indeed guilty….
During the entire film, John Denver is the subject of wrong accusations, fuelled by distorted reality (the manipulation of the main accuser’s words on the video by a mysterious and anonymous person…), and violent attacks from abstract people on the web.
The director, Arden Rod Condez, recalls: “In recent years, we have begun to witness the dangers of social media, particularly for the vulnerable Filipino millennial. In 2017, our neighbours’ son fled after a video of him bullying another kid surfaced on line. A boy in a town committed suicide when he was accused of stealing a gadget. A girl in another city killed herself live on Facebook. These troubling tales of Filipino millennials make me ask: ‘How does someone come-of-age in the time of social media?’ ”
Thus, almost nothing is total fiction in that dark story of a presumably innocent boy caught in the web, in a way that even his courageous mother cannot prove his innocence, when everyone else (his classmates, the neighbours, the teachers, the local police) believe he is guilty, because it’s “true” on Facebook. “The boy or the other ones may be not evil, but the social media is” might be the moral of the film, if we look for any…
In F***bois, the latest film by rising director Eduardo Roy Jr (of Bahay Bata, Quick Change, Pamilya ordinaryo, all shown at Cinemalaya before), which is totally different in style from John Denver, it’s not an ordinary student, but two common boys (actors Royce Cabrera and Kokoy de Santos) in a male beauty pageant, a common scene in Manila, who are entangled in the dark web. Physically handsome and quite spontaneous in their glorious youth, all they have to do is to show their body in a night bar , and get as many followers as possible on FB, hoping some sponsors or producers will pick them up to become actors or celebrities in a sooner or later. So far, so good. Unfortunately, after the show, they are picked up by a local Mayor, who has just been defeated in the elections, and wants to take them to his villa to have some fun and forget his defeat… At first, quite an ordinary situation, but we soon discover that the Mayor (remarkably interpreted by actor Ricky Davao, who won Best Supporting Actor award) had earlier recorded on his phone a video of them in a sex game that had to be kept secret. The boys follow him to a party in his villa, but also try everything they can to delete the compromising video, which might ruin their virtual career in the very eyes of their followers and sponsors….
With his usual strong, hyper-realistic mise-en-scene (enhanced by Albert Banzon’s striking cinematography) Eduardo Roy deconstructs the puzzle, and once again puts the web and the viral videos under scrutiny. Deleting the video becomes a matter of life and death, and that’s what just happens in the end. Three lives are destroyed because of the merciless web. Actually, the film’s story is adapted from a real story which happened a few years ago, but the Mayor in the film was only a Barangay captain (District Chief) in real life, and the two boys surprisingly got away (which the “open end” of the two fugitives suggests at the end of the film…).
These two films (and a few others) put the finger in the wound where it really hurts in our “(anti)social media” world. It’s a recording and a warning of what can happen to any one of us if we don’t react. May we suggest that Mark Zuckerbeg watch these two movies, just for the record?
-- Max Tessier Edited by Latika Padgaonkar
(*) Cinemalaya, the original and most awaited Indie film festival in the Philippines , ran from August 2 to 11/13, in Metro Manila and the provinces.