“John Denver Trending”: Mirroring the effects of toxic social media culture

Exploring Arden Rod Condez's searing portrait of social toxicity.

"John Denver Trending": Mirroring the effects of toxic social media culture
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Arden Rod Condez’s debut film, John Denver Trending, the runaway winner of the 2019 Cinemalaya Film Festival, continues to behold the attention of audiences and critics alike, as it recently earned nominations from the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino, the group of film critics behind the prestigious Gawad Urian Awards. With six nominations (including the nod for Best Director for Condez, Best Actress for Meryll Soriano, and Best Actor for a first-time teen actor, Jansen Magpusao), the film about a teenage boy accused of stealing his classmate’s iPad has an infinite relevance in the global context today.

The issue of the use and misuse of social media is highlighted even more as we are all trying to survive the Covid-19 pandemic. Most people rely on the internet and social media to communicate with their loved ones, keep themselves updated with news, or simply pass the time. Because of the increasing use of the internet and social media that enables us to connect with anyone from different locations, the world has become smaller and more public. With these in mind, this article will discuss several aspects of the film concerning the social media culture, which increasingly grows more toxic as technology becomes central to our day-to-day communication and experiences. 

Social Media in the time of Pandemic

The outbreak of Covid-19 last March 2020 has pushed everyone to stay at home, with the ambiguous plans set out by the Philippine government on lockdowns and other measures to curb the effects of the pandemic. Those who have access to technology are advised to work from home, utilizing the internet to accomplish what used to be done at the office. The abrupt shift to this setup blurs the line between what is work and leisure, and what is private and public. 

"John Denver Trending": Mirroring the effects of toxic social media culture

Because most people were stuck in their homes, they were led, partly by boredom, and partly by insensitivity, to comment on pertinent issues in the society during the pandemic. Several trending topics are let out in the open on Twitter, the gossip hub of the internet. Social media users called out people for their inconsiderate comments about people who had to work despite the lack of adequate transportation. Actors, government officials, and even practically anyone, are humiliated in social media for their past and present misdemeanors.

This 21st-century version of public shaming comparable to the medieval corporal punishment of stoning to death (which may be more violent but equally traumatizing, albeit in different terms) is called “cancel culture”. This happens when people denounce a person on social media for his or her wrongdoings, and instantly withdraw their support, as in the case of famous personalities.

In the film John Denver Trending, the act of cancel culture becomes a form of cyberbullying, which is even made more scarring since it also translates to the protagonist’s real-life experiences. People, whether directly involved or not with the incident, shared their opinions about John Denver, even they do not know the truth behind what happened.

Truth in a Post-Truth World

Furthermore, the scenes of the film contribute to its overall meaning, and it poses questions to the viewers about the notion of truth in this post-truth world. In the film’s first few minutes, a shot of the live dance practice of the high school boys for a school event is captured through a Facebook live post. Even before the incident, John Denver is already being bullied because of his social standing. This was also the same reason why he was accused by his classmates of stealing a gadget, leading one of the boys to take a video of the fight, and, wanting to get even for his assaulted friend, posted the video on social media.

"John Denver Trending": Mirroring the effects of toxic social media culture

In these scenes, although what is visible is only what is captured and nothing more, people who saw the video still jumped into conclusions and reacted as if they knew the story behind the incident. Here, the increasing use of social media makes people more concerned about their opinions and representation, without delving into the truth of the matter first. This is considered as a manifestation of a toxic social media culture that we should avoid, but fall into its trap anyway.

A connected issue to this which is also dealt with in the film is the idea of truth. In John Denver Trending, the incident involving the main character and his classmates was blown out of proportion, making other people capitalize on the issue itself – other students testifying on John Denver’s hot-headed temperament, or media personalities editing an interview for sensationalism are just two examples. Likewise, the fact that John Denver did not steal the iPad is forgotten as others create their version of the truth. That the audience does not know who stole the iPad implies how people quickly form their judgment about matters they do not even know of. This detail is translated into our own real experiences, as the proliferation of fake news abounds almost every day. 

National Cinema from the Regions

John Denver Trending fuses both form and content to create a film that will be relevant since we now live in a technological era. The film’s cinematography is commendable, especially the sweeping shots of the small town of Pandan, Antique. These scenes capture the atmosphere of the Visayan community where the fusion of local culture and transnational influences are seen. Furthermore, the cinematography of the film reels us in the intimate struggles of the main character and his family, who all become victims of a judgmental society. 

"John Denver Trending": Mirroring the effects of toxic social media culture

The last part of the film suggests that the world of the protagonist is a microcosm of Philippine society. John Denver becomes the Filipino victimized by the same institutions expected to lead him to become better – the police, the educational system, and even the society at large. The song “Pilipinas Kong Mahal” heard in the background while John Denver is taken to the police station for investigation implies the connection of his narrative with the national narrative. In addition, this community film also suggests that in this age, when the use of technology has been seamlessly integrated into our everyday lives, the divisions between what is local, regional, national, and global are blurred. John Denver’s personal narrative of being a victim also becomes a global experience because of the internet and social media.

In relation to this, the apparent honesty and artistry of the film also depict the power of cinema from the regions. Before the rise of digital cinema, there is a monopoly of film production from Manila, leading the viewers to acquire a biased definition of what consists of national cinema. Now that most equipment is accessible to everyone, it is about time that we see the films from the different regions of the Philippines because these reflect the reality of the country, as what is exemplified in John Denver Trending


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