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Verses, versus and ‘Respeto’

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By Tonyo Cruz

If “Di Nyo Ba Naririnig” and “Tatsulok” are the protest anthems of 2017, then Treb Monteras II’s film “Respeto” could be considered the emblematic film about the Philippines at this time of rising fascism.

Cinemalaya has honored “Respeto” as the festival’s best picture for this year. Critics and audiences continue to lavish praise for the script, the sights and sounds, the cast and the crew behind it.

Wittingly or unwittingly, Monteras and his team made a film that ought to be entered into the canon of radical films by Brocka, Bernal and Cervantes.

Let me tell you why.

This film’s main characters come from the poor (Hendrix) and the lower strata of the middle class (Doc). The story defies the formula that would have a Savior to help them make sense of the situation and ultimately to redeem them. It silently but effectively attacks the matapobre by showing the poor can think for themselves, and that the best of the middle class could come out when they serve the poor.

The choice of Pandacan as the film’s setting is pregnant with meaning: Tondo could have been a good choice. But Pandacan lies next to Malacanang. Is the film goading the people to rally to the palace nearby?

Who also knew that a cemetery could cleverly show the current situation and fate of young people like Hendrix and his friends. The walls of the apartment-type tombs became a canvas where they recited and painted their memories and their dreams. Metaphors galore, if you ask me. Would Hendrix and his friends let their dreams die in Pandacan? Or would they dream big to bury the system that keeps them down?

Hendrix is a poor orphan caught by circumstance in the local web of narcopolitics. He represents one of the film’s two centers of gravity. The other is Doc’s son: a cop who turns out to be the area’s principal drug pusher. Doc, the former poet, bridges both – sort of.

The film doesn’t say if Hendrix used to go to school or have long dropped out. He receives absolutely nothing from the state that is duty-bound to save, protect and nurture him and his friends. Meanwhile, agents of the state treat him and his friends with absolute cruelty and savagery.

“Respeto” challenges the long, unrealistic and stale PR offensive that is “Ang Probinsyano”. It portrays the police as people actually see them: abusive, corrupt, criminal, ready to unleash harm, disrespectful, murderers, the real bosses of pushers of drugs in communities and the most familiar face of narcopolitics.

The film features Flip-top – a “new” creative expression of the poor. Usually raw, brutal and angry, it is also apparently a modern iteration of “Balagtasan”. Mixing verse and music, it captures the fury, frustrations and aspirations of performers and fans. They are not unintelligent or inarticulate. They are well-organized. And they carry on a fine Filipino tradition of using music and verse to express themselves.

Hendrix thought Flip-top would be easy to do, and that he could simply steal someone else’s verses and voice – but Doc takes him down and preaches that he should have his own voice and to be the voice for others.

The Flip-top competition titled Bersus or Bersos could be another metaphor to the contests and contradictions that envelope Hendrix and the entire film. Hendrix versus himself, Hendrix versus other competitors, Hendrix versus Doc, Hendrix versus the seemingly hopeless situation he is in.

Doc also confronts his own contradictions, perhaps mirroring those of others in the middle class and of the veterans of the anti-Marcos resistance. Duterte’s pro-Marcos necropolitics as a source of endless nightmares, and of fear that evils the people once fought are back.

“Respeto” is not a documentary. It could be a musical, considering the sizable portions given to Flip-top, music and verse. The title is both aspiration and demand of the characters, in their world where they are considered as mere drug pushers, thieves, aging poets — demonized, marginalized and unserved by government.

While not a documentary, I’m sure huge swaths of our urban poor would identify themselves with the characters, setting and situations. It may turn off the “respectable” middle-class who likewise view them as mere pawns in rivalries between the ruling elite. The elite is physically absent in the movie, as in real life. But they are also very present by way of the attempted demolition, the radio reports on the hero’s burial for Marcos, and the anti-drug war that engulfs the film’s setting and characters.

Monteras ably directed his cast who, in turn, helped each other in their performances. The ensemble of Abra, Dido de la Paz, Loonie, Kate Alejandrino, Chai Fonacier, Ybes Bagadiong, Brian Arda, Thea Yrastorza and Nor Domingo — individually and collectively — brought the story to life in a compelling manner. I only have praises for writers Njel de Mesa and Monteras for their brilliant work.

For the sights and sounds of “Respeto,” we owe a whole lot to cinematographer Ike Avellana; editor Lawrence Ang; production designer Popo Diaz; sound designer Corinne De San Jose; and Jay Oliver Durias for the musical score.

Producer Monster Jimenez; Monteras’ co-executive producers Thenielle Monteras, Jet & Mae Cornejo; line producer Kristine Kintana; and assistant director Timmy Harn. (Disclosure: Mae Cornejo is a batchmate at Manila Science High School. And, no, we didn’t talk about this film.)

If you’re a fan of the “black and white” brand of divisive politics, or “the art for art’s sake” school, or of traditional film formula, watching “Respeto” would most probably make you uncomfortable and challenge your worldview.

Follow me on Twitter @tonyocruz and check out my blog tonyocruz.com

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