John Denver Trending (Philippines, 2019) [Reel Asian 2019]

John Denver Trending, written and directed by Arden Rod Condez, exposes an anomaly between what passes as reality and truth. In an attempt to defend himself from his classmates who accuse him of stealing an iPad, John Denver Cabuncal (Jansen Magpusao) becomes the talk of the town after a video of him beating up one of the accusers is uploaded and became viral over social media. The film highlights the psychological strain of bullying as a social phenomenon: the film presents how not just John Denver’s schoolmates, but also the whole town gangs-up on him, placing a lot of stress on his young mind. In the process of exposition, the film attempts to map out a structure of violence in the small town community. The result, however, is a very narrow map drawn with hasty generalizations.

The map is drawn from the school, where the incident happened. After being taunted by his classmates during their dance rehearsal, depicted as live-streamed over Facebook, John Denver, irritated, decided to leave early. As he leaves the school, his dance mates accused him of stealing an iPad which was left charging in the classroom where he just got out. The film presented the structure as the scene go along: what and which room goes where, how tall the building is and who are present during the incident.

This first sequence gave a very important overview of what John Denver Trending is trying to do. It is trying to process the elements present in the beginning as its premises: the interplay of internet, social media and social institutions in the formation of truth to be accepted. As the audience, you are clearly presented of the truth of John Denver’s innocence. This helped establish very clear sympathy for John Denver.

One interesting thing about John Denver Trending is the way it treats the characters’ surrounding seem a lot more plastic than what it presents. Its rural, small town setting might give off the feeling of a social realist take on the matter, but the way the conflict escalated provides a slightly fantastic angle to it. The town folk who are trying to persecute John Denver act more like an export of social media outrage into reality than a reflection of reality. Imagine a zombie invasion, and the town folks “eat up” John Denver by “trolling” him in real life. Intercutting between scenes showing Facebook users’ commentaries on John Denver’s case in social media and scenes of the town persecuting John Denver made distance between the two realities narrower.

This shift into the fantastic, the blurring between social media and social realities, also shifts the film’s attention towards a generalized take on the social production of truth. While this blurring of realities might seem bold, it only results to an oversimplified view because of its single-minded concern to John Denver, not as a human in this case, but as a mere subject. A mere case to be proven. John Denver Trending is less concerned with John Denver’s predicaments than proving that everybody else is complicit to the gate-keeping of the truth.

The film’s discourse over who handles the truth, despite of its obvious presentation to the audience that John Denver is indeed innocent, becoming increasingly muddled in its rather simplistic approach to the complexity of social negotiation. This simplification set off two kinds of traps for itself. Since it settles for simplifying the matter of society being complicit to evil, it necessarily draws for itself a cynical take on human agency. This cynicism gives the film an incapacity for an actual imagination of a resolution of any kind. Its narrative denouement only pushes its subject to the edge since it does not really consider any point of resistance, which of course, will logically make him fall off the cliff.

The second trap the film sets for itself comes from its simplification of reality. It presents a social formation which validates more than critiques the echo chamber nature of social media that it tries to attack. By dismissing the distance between the virtual and the actual, making it look the same, John Denver Trending is only able to present a kind of reality detached from any point of actual or virtual social practices. It’s no wonder that the film makes an echo chamber of itself, too.

John Denver Trending was shown at the Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival 2019 on November 8 2019.

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