We like to think that we live in a more enlightened age in which we’re able to react with compassion and understanding, striving to see both sides of every story rather than rushing to judgement. The truth is, however, that we’re often just as malicious and mean-spirited as we ever were. Social media has turned us all into thoughtless curtain twitchers, hungry for the next scandal and willing to take any hint of salacious gossip at face value. The online world has no place for fairness, and when everyone agrees on a collective “truth” facts are no defence in the court of public opinion. 

14-year-old John Denver Cabungcal (Jansen Magpusa) is the oldest son of a poor family. His father was in the military and has apparently passed away, while his mother, Marites (Meryll Soriano), now makes ends meet weaving bags and baskets while the family lives in a traditional village way out of town. A slight, angry boy John Denver is classically unlucky, mercilessly bullied just for being poor and getting punished when he dares to fight back. So it is when he’s humiliated during a dance rehearsal by having his trousers pulled down by another boy live on Facebook, after which they all laugh at him because his boxers are full of holes. When the rehearsal is over, one of the other boys accuses him of stealing his iPad, a situation compounded by the fact John Denver has apparently stolen before. The boy, Makoy (Vince Philip Alegre), snatches John Denver’s bag and demands to look inside. John Denver is innocent, but resents being forced to prove it and so refuses to let them see. He chases Makoy to the roof and wrestles the bag away from him, viciously beating him as he does so while another boy, Carlos, smirks from the sidelines as he records everything on his phone. Smug in the extreme, Carlos uploads the video to his Facebook with a hateful caption claiming to expose the “real” John Denver for the thieving little thug he is. 

The first of John Denver’s many problems is that he doesn’t have access to data on his phone and only limited connection to wi-fi while passing through his aunt’s place to pick up his siblings, so it’s hours before he knows anything’s wrong and then there’s nothing much he can do about it. He tries to ring Carlos, but he doesn’t answer. We don’t know who took the iPad, or even if it was stolen at all. Perhaps Makoy lost or broke it himself and needed someone to blame, or this is all an elaborate setup for cyberbullying, but events soon spiral out of control. John Denver tries to explain, he didn’t take the iPad and he was only defending himself after Makoy picked a fight, but the grownups don’t believe him. Everyone already seems to think John Denver is a bad boy, and nothing he says is going to change that. 

Trapped in this kafka-esque cycle of repeatedly stating his innocence, John Denver becomes the subject of a witch-hunt, a cursed figure despised by all. The village in which he lives is a hotbed of gossip and superstition where people still turn to the Village Chief for arbitration and the Shaman for advice. Even John Denver himself mutters a curse under his breath as he’s passed by a strange old woman (Estela Patino), herself the subject of local gossip for supposedly being a witch and having murdered a young man. Social media has, perhaps, merely turned us all into the gossiping old biddies in the square but amplified their nonsense tenfold and given it more weight through the authenticity of print. 

Soon enough, more witnesses start turning up to blacken John Denver’s name – a boy he hit with a stone during a fight, a girl he apparently stole food from. He denies neither of these crimes, but they now have new colour and intensity as the storm around him quickens. Meanwhile, a wealthier neighbour who seems to have a beef with his mother has been extorting money from them for supposedly causing the death of his water buffalo. He creates two versions of an online video. In the first he tells the truth with a mean-spirited spin, explaining that he’d seen John Denver looking for odd jobs in the market to make extra money to pay him compensation, once again using his poverty and “bad character” against him, while in the second he lies and says he saw him sell the iPad.

There is not, and perhaps has never been, any clear way to discern truth from fiction, supposition from malicious gossip. Everyone decides John Denver is guilty because John Denver is not liked. Makoy’s mother ropes in her neighbour, a policeman, who too insists John Denver is to blame and is being stubborn and unreasonable in refusing to conform to the majority view. The policeman takes his gun from his holster and hovers his hand over it on the desk, not quite pointing it but the effect is much the same. John Denver must accept his guilt, the mob must be appeased, the authorities have to be seen to act. The “truth” no longer matters, the semblance of it is all that counts. John Denver resists, he refuses to own a crime that is not his, but finds that innocence is an under appreciated quality when society itself refuses to admit its hate-fuelled hypocrisy. 

John Denver Trending screens in Amsterdam on March 5/6 as part of this year’s CinemAsia Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

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