I WATCHED “Respeto” with the makings of a Greek chorus nearby. When the movie’s lead character Hendrix suffered yet again, one girl in the row behind me grumbled, “Pagka wa’y ayo’ng kinabuhia (His life sucks).” A few minutes later, when Hendrix walked straight into a crime scene, another individual from the row behind me urged, “Dagan (Run)!”

The movie, fortunately, is so well told that it compels you to keep paying attention instead of looking away to shush more vocal moviegoers. It will make you root for Hendrix (Abra), Betchai (Chai Fonacier), and Payaso (Silvester Bagadiong), who spend their days loitering in the narrow alleys and defaced tombs of Pandacan. It will make you believe in characters with such improbable names as Breezy G. And it just might make you want to cry at the sight of a plastic plate of instant pancit canton.

At the heart of the story is a teenager who wants, more than anything, to win some street cred in a rap battle. It is the closest thing to respect that he knows, and to get it he’s willing to endure being manhandled and humiliated by other rappers and Mando (Brian Arda), the thug who lives with his sister and uses Hendrix as a runner for illegal drugs.

Hendrix’s shenanigans lead him to Doc (Dido de la Paz), a seller of used books who turns out to have been a poet in a different time. While they live in the same neighborhood, their lives couldn’t be more different, on the surface. Doc possesses a fluency and wit that lie beyond Hendrix’s reach; his dreams live in the bookshop he perseveres in running (called Malaya, in the movie’s only heavy-handed touch). Hendrix’s dreams live wherever the rap battles take place, at least when he’s not in the Sweet Lipz bar, where the girl he’s infatuated with works. An exchange between Doc and Hendrix prompts another comment from someone in the Greek chorus behind me. “Ang respeto dili pangayoon.” Did she mean that one can’t ask for respect but must earn it? Or that all human beings deserve it and shouldn’t have to ask? I didn’t get the chance to find out.

How the story unfolds, I suggest you find out for yourself. I will say, though, that the packed movie house during last Friday night’s screening in Robinsons Galleria broke into applause—spontaneous and prolonged applause—after that unforgettable final scene. Yet when “Respeto” was released around this time last year, it reportedly got fewer than four days in one of Cebu City’s theaters. How can we expect to see better Filipino films if we can’t be bothered to support those (like director Alberto “Treb” Montera II, among many others) who do make them? Thank you to the Friedrich Naumann Foundation (FNF) for bringing the movie to Cebu.

In about 11 weeks, it will be the 70th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. One of the reasons FNF arranged for “Respeto” to be screened in Cebu was to call for more entries to its FreedomMov_E competition, in which the challenge is to show a story about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in no more than four minutes. The challenge is timely. Addressing the United Nations General Assembly last Wednesday, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian lamented how the resurgence of nationalist and populist discourse has led to “the shrinking space for human rights.” In Asia, we know this all too well, as some of our tyrants (incumbent or aspiring) have tried to equate calls for the protection of human rights with foreign intervention in domestic affairs. That particular fiction is more than two decades old.

“Respeto” shows us a world where the idea of human rights seems like a fragile sentiment. In its context, only the cruel and quick-witted are heard; one finds no more security at home than out in the streets that the powerful and corrupt control. And what of the right to be presumed innocent? The movie challenges us to think about the idea that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights,” as well as the consequences that await when we fail to believe it and assert it.