by Richard Bolisay
▶︎ One will look back on this year’s Cinemalaya five, ten, or fifteen years from now and remember, with a degree of fondness reserved only for inclusive experiences, the gleam on people’s faces after the screening of Respeto, the buzzing noise as they walk towards the exit and exchange thoughts, the strong energy that bounces across the theater revealing not only the immediate impact of the film but also the reason for eliciting such response. One can’t just walk away from the film without acknowledging, even internally, the scale of ambition felt in its entirety. Such hugeness of feeling is warranted: It creates a world that connects to bigger worlds both from the past and present, and in doing so also imagines a future filled with more doubts than certainties, with far more worrying questions than reassuring answers. And with the timeliness, the relevance of its issues, the gnawing pain coming from the mental and emotional proximity of the film to the here and now, how can one with a strong sense of social awareness and responsibility not be shaken? How can one merely suspend disbelief?
Respeto banks on the truth of its sentiments, and the major truth of 2017 in the age of Duterte, in the age of fake news and dwindling morality, is that people are getting killed — over 13,000 of them and counting — with human lives, many of them coming from the poorest sector, being used as targets and collateral damage of the state-sponsored war on drugs. It is no longer survival of the fittest; it is mainly survival. Respeto provides a clear picture of this time, a context that is unmistakably present-day, and sets its story in a community where Filipino hiphop culture thrives and its lead character, Hendrix, dreams of making it in the scene. The use of microcosm is obvious but necessary. It is a place of resistance: against government systems aiming to displace people, against social conditions that force young ones to become shabu couriers and put their lives in danger, against the cruelties of a milieu that enables harsh competition, against the terrible realities of being born poor and lacking the opportunities to succeed.
Admittedly, Respeto works more convincingly if one looks at the “bigger” pieces of its story. The linking of Marcos and Duterte is a striking feat, a vital political gesture for which the film will rightly be remembered, especially in light of having a co-writer who is a known Duterte supporter. The rap battles are a delight to watch, and there is so much nuance in them that speaks critically of the depth and superficiality of being Filipino, the contradictions and paradoxes attached to being one. Doc, played by the great Dido de la Paz, is a character of lasting relevance, one whose passion for poetry, faith in humanity, and strength to live embody the manner and mindset of the film, one who can be quietly arresting at one point and gracefully bursting with rage at the next. It’s easy to understand the glowing reviews: The film does not rest on intent alone; it has the balls to show the cycle of violence and point at the very institutions that are at fault for the continuing decay of moral scruples in Philippine society, while also honoring the richness and dignity of people whose main struggle every day is to find food to eat and live their lives safely.
These merits, however, must be weighed alongside some aspects of Respeto that are not exactly satisfactory. One of which is the way Hendrix is written and developed. To put it bluntly, it is hard to root for him. Or yet: He is not a character to root for, after all. Which is fine in a general sense, except that the film underscores his journey, humanizing him from being a lowly shabu courier to a performer with a purpose, one who tries to do what is right despite his difficult situation. Hendrix’s characterization isn’t particularly on point, and a scene that marks him is when he allows the rape of a woman to happen, a woman he is attracted to, a woman he is supposed to fight for as far as rules of romance are concerned. But he only stands there and lets it happen. And the film lets him let it, too, which is not a matter of being realistic (yes, it can happen) but of being right (because in this case, doing what’s right supersedes whatever the effect of portraying reality is). This could also explain why the attempt at a poetic ending isn’t as impressive as intended. In the film’s context, Hendrix’s killing does not feel earned — not that all killings have to be earned to be acceptable, but killings in cinema are subject to writing design, to technical execution, to be effective — and the flimsiness of his characterization impedes the achievement of catharsis.
If there is one thing that Respeto nails with utter believability, it is the fact that making art in a time of crisis is not the solution, that art is powerless in the face of thousands of dead people. But at the same time it also asserts that it is important to make art nevertheless, if only to make the viewers realize that taking action is needed — going to the streets to protest, refusing to yield to all machineries of deceits and dishonesties, avoiding neutrality in words and in deed, recognizing one’s privilege and helping the marginalized fight systemic oppression — if only to make them see the injustice and do something about it in their own way. Good art does not spoon-feed ideas, but enables reflection on one’s surroundings. Respeto must be seen for its contribution to the discussion, for its aesthetic merits and political courage, and for what it portrays: a society that fights back. With the brutal deaths of Kian delos Santos, 17, Carl Arnaiz, 19, and Reynaldo de Guzman, 14 — all of whom could have been Hendrix, young and hopeful, driven by modest dreams and accepting of life’s terrible challenges at an early age, kids who plead for their lives but are tortured heartlessly, shot dead, stabbed 30 times, denied of their right to live by the very institution that should serve and protect them, with bullets in their bodies and faces covered in tape, buried with immeasurable grief by their parents — one hopes that it is still not too late to do something about this country’s fate. ***
Richard Bolisay is a film critic. This piece was previously published on his site Lilok Pelikula under "Dispatches from Cinemalaya 2017 (Part 3)," September 8 2017.