‘John Denver Trending’ challenges the truth and reflects on social media’s ‘call out’ culture

July 15, 2019 – Vinz Lamorena


Arden Rod Condez’s movie is a fulfillment of promises. It was a remark said in passing, but his late mentor had once hoped to witness him come up the Cinemalaya stage. Although fate didn’t allow this to happen, it did serve Arden a wake up call in 2017. Reality’s hard-hitter helped him stop delaying his goals and land his first film in the renowned film festival.

The Antique native also once swore to make his first movie in his hometown of Pandan. These two undertakings were realized through “John Denver Trending,” a story about a young boy who was framed for stealing an iPad. To make matters worse, the accusation landed on the internet and became the week’s designated trending topic

It’s no secret that people have picked up new habits thanks to the internet, but the technological feat remains neither a friend nor foe. Instead, Condez reflects on how people themselves are changed by the it, exploring the call out and cancel cultures embedded on its pages. As the first platform people turn to when conflict rises, the independent film observes how easily the process of a trending topic can escalate. The film questions the values we adhere to now and presents moments of our self-imposed righteousness for reevaluation.

As the Cinemalaya rookie presents a brief study on social media, “John Denver Trending” hopes to emphasize the perils that go beyond the digital landscape. Perils that are starting to latch itself on the foundations of society itself. It also touches on the inevitable: The rampant fake news culture in the country. The film seeks to make sense of truth’s very design, but more importantly it strives to chronicle the times—to acknowledge what has become of us in the midst of the digital age.

“John Denver Trending” hits home in a lot of ways. Not only are Arden’s family members getting some screen time for this movie, the first-time director also shared the hospitality of his hometown made it easier to produce the film. Antique transformed into a character in this film, lending its local customs to the story. And it is in this very province where Arden found the boy to play the titular role, Jansen Magpusao.

Arden is fascinated by the young boy’s innocence and how this whole Cinemalaya experience is bound to widen 15-year-old’s horizons—after all, it is Jansen’s first time fly in a plane and watch a movie in the cinema where he gets to be introduced the capital as the face of John Denver.

The screenplay writer and director sat down with alike to talk more about his first full-length feature:

What inspired you to particularly tell this story?

The process is quite interesting for this story. One time going to work, I heard this news on the radio about a teenager accused of stealing an iPad who then committed suicide. I based my original script on that, finished it, and then entered it in the Palanca. 

But soon after, the Ateneo bullying incident spread throughout the internet. The two stories had its similarities and I had to reassess the script as I studied how the Ateneo story unfolded through the comments sections. This eventually became the structure of the film, too—from the start of the incident, the uploading of video, and then its ending.

It didn’t make a different story altogether, but in terms of aesthetics, it just became clearer to me. I became more aware of how the camera should work—that it should play the role of a monster lurking around. A camera is everywhere now, it moves. For the film, it starts as an observer. The whole story runs in a matter of five days and it chronicles how the life of a teenager and his relationships with people were affected by what goes on in social media. That real-life bullying incident was an unfortunate thing to happen, but it gave me ideas on how to direct this film.

Apart from the news on bullying, what made you decide to write this story as it is?

Primarily the advocacy involved in the film, the idea that someone has to take this story and tell it. Everyone knows how it goes: There’s just one video scandal every week. The film isn’t here to let you learn a lesson, but I felt that someone had to capture this period in time when people react in certain ways to certain things.

As you chronicle the story of your young lead, what did you want your film to emphasize?

It is about a boy who is bullied, but one who can also be considered as a bully. But for me, this story shows how institutions are affected. It starts in the school, then his home, their church, and he is taken to the police, local community, and municipal government. That’s the greater and worst danger, when the institutions around us start to believe in what social media says. It escalates. 

Meryll Soriano plays John Denver's mother.

When bullying incidents are uploaded online, strangers get themselves involved. Can you share your thoughts on the irony that the bully becomes the bullied on social media?

As Filipinos, it’s not in our culture to be frank. We are too modest, we stay away from conflict. I think it’s part of our instinct to gossip. When there are problems, the first thing people do is turn to our friends, our kapitbahays—and then social media happened. Social media is the more convenient chismosang kapitbahay. It’s now an instinct to post on social media whenever anger or issues rise up, just so other people can start to get involved. But I believe issues and problems are resolved better and faster when it doesn’t even reach social media.

How about your thoughts on the line between the truth and the truth told on social media? How were you able to translate this into your film?

I realized that the way we are prepared to believe anything we see on social media is unconsciously part of Filipino culture now. There are things that are obviously false and manipulated, yet there are those who still think of it as truth. What we did on “John Denver Trending” is we presented something that blatantly shows that social media does not paint the absolute truth, but instead we see what we want to believe in as the truth.

Arden Rod Condez/photo by Vinz Lamorena

For the past 15 years you were a head writer for TV, how often did you get to write personal projects?

Rarely. I think that’s the real frustration of every writer for TV. But TV is the best training ground, that’s where you can practice the balance of pleasing the widest audience possible and your own creativity as a writer, because at the end of the day, you should still be able to consider yourself as an artist. The contrast of commerce and art is evident.

What do you enjoy the most when you’re writing for yourself?

The fact that I don’t have to think of my bosses. The process to get your stories approved for TV is a really long one. For this film, I didn’t have to listen to anyone else. Every decision during the shoot til the editing was my call. It’s a relief. It was a liberating feeling. I’m a very pessimistic and cynical person, so I tend to get worried about everything. But I think that helped me become more detail-oriented and hands on for my first film. I prepared and prepared for the worst every time we were shooting. I had my shot list, pegs, and references always at the ready. I was well surprised of how I was able to communicate my ideas and directions with everyone on set, it was a whole new experience from being just a writer.

Do you think you’ll want to direct again?

Yes. It was such a fun experience for me and it made me realize that maybe this is what I should be doing. You know what? After shooting the movie, I decided and told my network I wouldn’t be coming back as a writer. I got a taste of freedom that was lost all these years and it was good to rediscover that again.

It’s your first film, but how would you like to be known as a director?

I just want to be a director of chances. To be able to have that chance to tell stories and talk about issues people don’t necessarily want to confront. It’s also nice to be a person to extend opportunities—to be the one who opens up possibilities for others and give them a chance of a lifetime.