Trending: An Interview with Arden Rod Condez on 'John Denver Trending'

With the level of cinematographic attention to the depiction of this story, it is hard to believe that John Denver Trending is Arden Rod Condez's directorial debut. This film tells a cautionary tale about the devastating effects of social media, however, its strength lays in the way Condez has elaborated on this subject in the socio-cultural context of the Philippines. Condez's familiarity with this specific context is evident in his assured filmmaking style. Moreover, the way in which his closeups convey such emotional poignancy points to Condez's own motivation to tell this story not just for the sake of making a film, but for bringing to light an underrepresented issue. 

In John Denver Trending the titular character, an eighth grader, finds himself in the centre of a national scandal when a video of him assaulting one of his classmates goes viral. Condez creates a feeling of helplessness, especially with his use of sound - where often, voices will crowd over one another while John Denver is silently watching, evoking the sense of suffocation and voicelessness even for the viewer. Condez's ability to make his audience emotionally invested in an issue of socio-political importance is a promising sign for his filmmaking career. 

SINdie had the opportunity to ask Condez some questions, particularly about setting this film in rural Philippines, depicting the religious background, and even about his use of the camera. Read on for this enlightening interview. 

*note: certain responses may contain spoilers

SINdie: What were some of the biggest challenges in making this film, and what inspired you to keep going with this story? 

One of the biggest challenges for me was finding the right producer for this film. Ever since this project was just a concept, I had already decided that I was going to hire non-professional actors to keep to that idea of “people becoming famous because of social media”. I wanted my actors to also have that experience of becoming famous because of our film.

With this decision in mind, I knew from the start that it would be hard for me to find a financier since most producers here in the Philippines understandably want popular actors in their movies. However, I strongly believed that this film had to be with unknown actors. The challenge of making this film with them inspired me to keep looking for the right producers. Eventually, my team and I agreed to make this with first-time producers who didn’t have any preconditions on casting, storytelling, content, etc. They loved the cause that our film is pushing and, because of that they agreed to produce it. In the end, we decided to hire established actress Meryll Soriano but the rest were homegrown untapped talents. 

Another challenge I faced was finding the right lead actor for John Denver. As I’ve noticed, from 400 Blows, to Kes, to Slumdog Millionaire, most iconic coming-of-age films are led by first-time actors. So I searched for mine. It was a difficult task because my criteria was very specific: I wanted someone who has presence, someone who can act, and someone who can speak the regional language of Kinaray-a (which is the main language spoken in the film). 

I focused my search in the island of Panay (which is actually my hometown) where the language is spoken. It was quite limiting. I met over a hundred kids, and from those I shortlisted some. In the end, I opted with Jansen Magpusao - even though he did not actually audition! Jansen's picture was sent to me by a cousin, and I was intrigued by his eyes. I sent my team to look for him and have him act in front of a camera. It was an awful audition but I was intrigued by his awkwardness and vulnerability. Once he was casted, for five days, he had sessions with an acting coach. When shooting started, the boy shocked everyone with his raw yet affecting portrayal. I think the boy will also surprise the audience. One of the best decisions I made for this film was casting Jansen.

Lastly, another challenge was shooting a film where more than half of the cast were minors. We had to comply with the labour laws, which affected our scheduling and our budget. However, the urgency and the strength of the material inspired me to proceed no matter what. Someone has to tell this story and I wanted it to be me.

SINdie: Typically films about the effects of social media on young teenagers take place in a very upper middle class, urban city setting. However, I couldn't help but notice that your main character, John Denver, comes from a less wealthy social class - especially with references to internet caf├ęs, radios. You also emphasize the great distance he has to travel to get to school, and demonstrate a communal style of living with references to characters like the village chief (which seems particular to Southeast Asia). What was the motivation behind choosing this specific setting, as opposed to an urban/city setting (e.g. Manila)? 

A large portion of the story was based on an actual event that I heard about in the news over the radio. It was about a boy who was cyberbullied because he allegedly stole an iPad. It happened in one of the provinces in the Philippines and the boy was a farmer’s son.

One of the reasons why I was troubled by this news was because it happened in a very rural town. It made me realize that the effects of the misuse of social media can happen to everyone everywhere. Well, all because the internet, no matter how slow its speed here in the Philippines, reaches all. The online experience of somebody in Metro Manila can also be experienced by somebody in the provinces. When social media suddenly becomes a monster, then, it excuses no one.

At the same time, I also wanted to explore the difference of this kind of experience when it happens in rural areas. In places like the one in the movie, everyone knows everybody. This is not usually true in crowded cities like Manila; you can exist in Manila even without knowing who your neighbours are. In the provinces, everyone is connected. So when someone’s son becomes embroiled in a stealing scandal, it easily becomes the talk of the town. 

In Manila, stealing a 45-thousand peso priced iPad is not news. But in rural areas, it can quickly become an issue of reputation, of dignity. This is precisely the reason why at the start of the film, I emphasized one by one, through John Denver's travel from school to his house, all the archetypes that comprise a rural town: the teachers, the priest, the policemen, the market vendors, the gossiping neighbour, the rumoured witch. (Yes, we shot this in the province of Antique, my hometown, and my hometown is ridiculously infamous as the land of the witches.) I pointed out everyone that comprises a community so we will know who and what the kid will face when the issue eventually erupts.

SINdie: I also noticed a lot of references to religion. For example, the mother's friend seems to believe in demons and possessions, which is heavily contrasted against Catholicism and more institutional forms of religion. What was the reason for this? 

I could not help but touch some references to religion. This was accidental because we shot a huge part of the film at an actual Catholic school. So we saw elements everywhere that we eventually used. In fact, when I saw an old print of the Pieta inside the school, it was an epiphany for me. I realized then, that John Denver’s story is similar to the story of Jesus Christ when he was wrongly accused of treason. When you think of his ordeal, you cannot help but also think of Mary’s struggles as she also suffered alongside her son. Her journey reminded me of Marites’, John Denver’s mother.

I don’t want to sound so religious here but as a story, the Passion of the Christ eventually became an inspiration. In fact, we added the Pieta element through our production design. There are mother-child references in their house, at school, and even inside the police station.

The Philippines is highly Catholic but at the same time, it has preserved some of its pre-Hispanic, pre-Catholic practices. This is particularly true in our province. Antique is believed to be the first Malay settlement in the country and until now, it practices pre-hispanic traditions. For example, going to the shamans (maaram) not just to seek aid for illnesses but also to solve crimes and mysteries. In the movie, we cast an actual shaman and he performed his actual rituals.

I also used some components unique to the place as metaphorical elements of the story. For one, the subtle witch-hunting plot that was happening in the story that involved a woman who allegedly killed a neighbour is a metaphor to the modern witch-hunting that happens in cyberspace. This juxtaposition of the traditional and the modern hopefully will interest the audience.

SINdie: What kind of research went into constructing the story of this film? I have read elsewhere that the plot was inspired by stories you'd read in the news about young kids being cyber-bullied to the extent of suicide. Given your inclusion of the police, and also the social worker (towards the end of the film), I'm especially curious to know about any research that went into policies, laws, and social systems in place to address the problem of cyberbullying/social media bullying, or those that end up exacerbating it. 

When I heard about the story of the boy who was cyber-bullied all because he allegedly stole an iPad, it suddenly came to my mind to just observe how the story would progress online. I saw a Facebook post about it and I tried to understand the entire story based on everything that was mentioned in the comments section. Then eventually, I tried reaching out to the boy’s family. When I talked to his aunt, I found that of course, they had a different version of the story.

These two versions of the truth that I had encountered during my research eventually became the inspiration for the structure of the script. The script was the interlacing of these two versions of truth and how both truths affect the life of the boy.

During my research, I also discovered that the boy’s teacher was the one who directly sent him to the police station. Some policemen allegedly pressured him to surrender the iPad. There was also a rumour that an entrapment operation was set up for him. All because of an iPad and all because social media had been pushing the school to do something about the matter. This made me realize that the real danger of a viral video is when institutions like the police and the school are pressured by social media to come up with urgent decisions even without observing due process. 

These actions from such institutions made me realize that it is time for us to take a pause and reassess all our guidelines of handling the youth now that everything is affected by social media. Upon checking, schools and the police have their “child protection policies”. However, sometimes they are not practiced. Everything in this film is a “what not to do” when someone is accused and bullied online.  Laying down such problems hopefully would start the conversation on responsible social media use, particularly for the youth.

SINdie: In terms of cinematography, I noticed that there was some very interesting, almost documentary-like play with camera shots and angles. For example, a largely still long take would suddenly move with the subject in the frame, and often it seemed like there was a hand-held style to the shot. Was this intentional? What were some of the specific cinematographic choices you made to enhance your depiction of the story. 

Yes, the varied camera movement was intentional. I’ve always considered the camera here as a monster. In the early parts of the film John Denver just observes. Hence, most of the first half of the film is comprised of still shots. Eventually, the camera moves. Then it moves with the character. Then it becomes restless and restless until it rapidly runs after the boy, and eventually hurts him in the end.

It is also important to point out that the still shots were generally used during scenes where so many people discuss and argue about the boy’s crime right in front of him. One particular scene is at the principal’s office with the boy’s mom. Another one is at the fishing port in the scene with the mayor. For these scenes, I just want the camera to step back and let the audience see how ridiculous we’ve become all because of a viral video.

SINdie: Lastly, I'd like to ask about the ending. Did you consider any other, perhaps more optimistic, ways to end the film? Ultimately, why was this the way you chose to end your film? 

I’ve always considered this film as cautionary tale. I wanted the ending to be the way it is so that it would hopefully make the audience ask themselves: what have we become as humans in this age of social media? 

The Philippines has one of the slowest internet speeds in the world and yet we have the highest social media usage in a day. We spend almost 10 hours of our lives on social media everyday. Understandably, because a lot of our family members are working abroad, social media becomes a very thrifty way to keep us connected. 

But on the other hand, it becomes the venue for some people to irresponsibly hurt others. The film’s ending hopefully will make people realize that when we move on to the next big news story, there are still people involved in those issues who continue to suffer and face the consequences. 

I hope that this film becomes an urgent reminder.

Responses have been edited for clarity 

Review and Interview by Tanvi Rajvanshi

John Denver Trending premiered at Cinemalaya and just won Best Film, Best Editing, Best Actor, Best Original Music Score and the NETPAC Jury Award for feature length film. Congratulations!

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