IS THIS what we have become as a nation? A people reduced to the gutter morality of survival, haunted by the ghosts of our morbid past, and trapped in an endless unforgiving cycle of violence? These were the thoughts that raced through my mind as the end credits of the film “Respeto” rolled and the house lights came on, abruptly putting an end to my reverie. Never had a movie achieve so much of a visceral impact that it felt like I was disemboweled and spent at the end of it - a testament to the little film’s dark but truthful heart.
It is an unusual story in the first place, one that puts the spotlight on persistent but hidden realities of the metropolis we would rather conveniently ignore or forget. It is only because of the overpowering stench of blood rising from the pavement, to paraphrase a spreading graffiti, because of the rising body count of the government-backed war on drugs that has so far victimized thousands of petty drug pushers and users, that we have come to notice the unhampered officially-sanctioned murders in our midst.
We follow the character of Hendrix, an aspiring teenage rapper together with his two friends in one of those nondescript areas of urban blight. They are practically orphans and eke out a living on their own, their families non-existent or inconsequential. The drug culture does not occupy the narrative front and center but it is there in his sister’s drug-dealing boyfriend for whom Hendrix occasionally delivers in exchange for a commission. No, this is not a feel good Mr. Holland’s Opus remake nor is it a Pinoy version of Stand and Deliver.
What is novel about the approach in storytelling is that the movie unravels to the audience as half a musical and the other half as spoken-word poetry. That viewers barely notice this uniqueness is proof of how immersive the celluloid universe the creators of the film was able to achieve.
We are first herded into a narrative about a young teenage boy seeking respect in the underground hip-hop culture’s rap battles. It has been a disastrous foray for fame and respect until a botched robbery of a second-hand bookshop entangled Hendrix with an ageing poet who wields a dark past.
It is the encounter and entanglement of the two that makes it possible for the film to go beyond just being a coming-of-age movie or a hip-hop musical for that matter. Instead, it becomes a journey into a soul of the nation in the age of Tokhang and Duterte.
The ambition and embedded theoretical program of the film hews it closer to an Ishma or Brocka actually, and the sordid ending finally provides the cinematic catharsis that was deprived of us by Brocka in his masterpiece “Maynila sa Kuko ng Liwanag.” Here, there is an object of the necessary social violence that must be released, although one wonders if this catharsis is enough.
So what is the state of the nation according to the seers of Respeto the movie? As stated above, we are a people reduced to the gutter morality of survival, haunted by the ghosts of our morbid past, and trapped in an endless unforgiving cycle of violence.
If ‘Drix represents the Filipino youth of today, then they are shallow and lost not because they are inherently flawed, but because the world they inhabit is without meaning. They have inherited a soulless world from the failures of the previous generations and this includes the impunity and violence that traces its origins from the Marcos dictatorship to its present form - one of the deft cinematic achievements that the film was able to effortlessly pull off. If they are not being oppressed and exploited by family members that are supposed to take care of them, it is the state and its crooked agents that target them for liquidation or write them off as collateral damage. His life has no future and the film depicts this kind of fate for their entire generation.
This is the same kind of dead-end fate that the elder wise man and poet-in-retirement actually endured after falling victim to the same kind of impunity under the Marcos dictatorship. Culling from accounts of human rights violations during this time, the character “Doc” witnessed his son tortured and murdered by the Philippine Constabulary to force him to squeal against his comrades in the underground movement. His wife, unable to deal with haunting murders killed herself soon after. Come to think of it, if lives and times were reversed, ‘Drix and Doc can actually be the same person in the context of an unchanging political recurrence.
The shared fate of the two, the young and the old poet, actually posit a challenge that goes beyond the cathartic but ultimately impotent murders that book-ended their respective acts in the film. As yellowed scraps of paper descend upon the last scene of the film like rain, which could be heaps of the film’s scripts perhaps, the film actually reflects on its own futility. There must be a better more organized channel for this cathartic social anger. Respect for “Respeto” as a cinematic achievement.