Film Review: Viral Kids (2020)

It's a bleak world we live in, as Filipino filmmaker, Arjanmar H Rebeta, might testify.

“The truth is imprisoned, hands are chained,” a blind man sings against the noisy shamble of oncoming traffic. His voice is low but gentle, steady guitar strumming belying the bustle on the street that ensues: children running around, playing and peddling items from sampaguita (a kind of sweetly-scented jasmine) to their voices, the street vendors with their assortment of knick knacks, the roar of car engines and the passersby who go out of their way to ignore them.

Viral Kids follows the lives of a cast of children, all street beggars who have to make a living. We are first introduced to Jepoy, who dreams of becoming a police officer and of attending school one day, though not in that order. Concon, his distinctively younger and grubbier counterpart, wants to be a director instead. His yellow shirt is filthy and oversized, reaching down to his knees.

“Good for you that you’re already wearing a uniform.” There’s a note of envy in Concon’s voice, as they pause to take a selfie in front of a school with a mobile phone magicked out of thin air, presumably stolen by Jepoy.

A prominent motif in Viral Kids, mobile devices and social media only serve to highlight the inequality between the haves and the have-nots, and more so between the children and the adults who parade them around on social media. It seems almost voyeuristic, seeing these children objectified and turned into sources of viral entertainment videos, inspirational photos and the like, all at the mercy of the adults viewing them.

But though street kids as they may be, their heads are never bowed from subservience, but rather, for survival. Sam, another child part of their motley panhandling crew, gleefully shows off her new envelopes to Concon just moments before she assumes a servile role and lowers her head to beg for donations aboard a blue-gray Jeepney headed for San Mateo. It’s all just play-acting, and children like to play, right?

The passengers aboard are apathetic to this, their faces illuminated by the blue light of smartphone screens playing the same video — a scrappy, young girl with a soulful voice, singing on the streets of Manila while collecting donations — or buried in newspapers, with headlines like “House panel OKs bill lowering age of criminal liability to 9 years old”, an act that criminalises child offenders who commit serious crimes at par with adults. Of course, all this does not matter to Concon, who steals the earring off a female passenger’s ear and runs away, giggling. Her panicked shout attracts a police officer, who immediately begins to chase them.

“Just run,” he yells at Sam, his unwitting accomplice.

“Why are we running, if you did not do anything?” she screams back. Her shrill voice is dampened by the slap of their shoes against concrete and the sound of the wind rushing past their ears.

Though just 15 minutes long, Viral Kids is more than just another social commentary about the lives of Filipino street children, the social structures that affect them, and the widespread effects of technology. Technology, which not only serves to highlight the deficiencies of the system but exacerbate them in turn.

Not all is grim, however. In the very last moments of the film, Jepoy manages to wrangle a video of one of the abusers on to the internet, hinting at his newfound empowerment and freedom in the hands of social media. Unfortunately, cases like his are few and far-between.

At its heart, Viral Kids is also a metaphor for how we run our lives: controlled like clockwork, merely empty souls with no care and concern beyond the lives of our immediate family and our own. Humans are often selfish after all, and Arjanmar H Rebeta’s adult caricatures exemplify this characteristic. Uncaring, callous and driven by desire, the adults of Viral Kids seem almost demonic in their apathy, complete character foils to the innocent children who live, breathe and feel.

There’s a scene where Concon runs through a dingy street, his pineapple-tied hair bobbing along as he dashes past lines of people using their phones, so still they may as well have been frozen in time. In the darkness, he gingerly clips on the stolen earring and smiles to himself, brushing his hair past his ear twice and pretending to admire the glittering jewelry. He may be alone at this moment, but his eyes are shiny — not from tears or the glare of artificial lighting, but from genuine happiness.
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