It would be wrong to think that poetry is archaic, long-dead and reserved for hopeless romantics. If anything, it’s an artform that has evolved, thriving and waiting for a bigger audience. You can witness its unwavering prowess in dimly lit cafes, escaping from the lips of spoken word artists grappling with their tsunami-like emotions. It’s in young adult anthologies—pages soaked with tears and heartbreak and longing. You hear it in the voice of passionate musicians, hidden in the moving ebbs and flows of their lyrics. And sometimes, when you’re lucky, you can find it in a dark cinema, enlightening you through a thoughtful script, nuanced acting, and a message that doesn’t force itself on the viewer, but instead allows the seething morality play to naturally take light. To be heard. To be recognized and given due respect.
Such is the case for Respeto, the rap drama of director Treb Monteras II, which took home the biggest prize of this year’s Cinemalaya Film Festival. It’s a movie that’s akin to a well-conceived rhyme—tight and piercing and cuts straight through the bullshit, unafraid to expose and exploit the weaknesses we kick under the mounting dirt.
It tells the story of Hendrix (Abra), a Pandacan slum-kid obsessed with hip-hop who dreams of escaping his miserable life as a drug-runner for his older sister and her abusive boyfriend. Together with his two best friends, he fights for a shot at rap notoriety by joining Versus, a local rap battle league. But Hendrix is young, beaming with potential but a slave to circumstance and the hand he has been dealt. The scene is unforgiving, and should you choose to choke or show even a drop of blood, your opponent will go in for the kill, ripping you a new asshole for the madla to penetrate with humiliation.
It’s not until Hendrix meets Doc (veteran actor Dido de la Paz) that his cloudy life sees shades of a silver lining. Doc is the town grump, a former poet and Martial Law survivor who runs a secondhand bookstore that Hendrix and his friends try to rob. Prickly as the old man may be, he is merciful when the rag-tag trio are apprehended, allowing them to make up for their sins by cleaning up his shop. He becomes a paternal figure to these street urchins, showing them compassion when no one else would. Times are tough, and Hendrix’s naivete is consuming. Because when you’re a teenager, especially one caged in by the trappings of poverty and the listlessness of despair, nothing seems more important than earning a reputation.
Abra is a revelation in the leading role—a thespian whose juvenile features lend the character a sentimental and authentic touch. It doesn’t hurt that he can spit mean bars, his audacious demeanor only sharpened by his innate musicality. Similarly, de la Paz commands attention onscreen, magnetic and masterful in his delivery. One key monologue sees him explaining the terrors he faced while dealing with the Philippine Constabulary—words so hard to hear yet oh so necessary. Everyone in the cast is so effective at building a fully realized world that it’s difficult not to invest in their impending fates.
The cinematography is another aspect to be lauded, textured and executed with purpose. The hues and tones chosen for each particular sequence elevate the movie away from prototypical poverty porn, a genre oversaturated with dim lighting and a graininess not unlike a sad student film. Here, there is brightness, Manila’s scathing humidity aptly represented. Shanties are illuminated with neon reds and clinical blues, the mixture urban and morbid and telling.
Respeto is multi-layered work that deserves the attention of critics and the masses. For a narrative so linear, it’s able to expound on numerous themes, all of which are very pertinent in today’s trying times. It’s a tale of political unrest—about a country so willing to watch as its poorer citizens are left to rot on the wayside, their corpses floating face down in our polluted rivers, heads wrapped in packaging tape, a pen-marked karatula announcing their unproven crimes. It also dwells on the cyclicality of victimhood, the hunger for hope eventually burning out like a limp wax candle when there’s no one around to watch it burn, burn, burn. At the center of it all is a boy looking to get out, ready to unburden himself of the shackles society has restrained him with, coming of age in the most unsavory and violent of ways.
But then, Respeto is also a meditation on art, espousing the idea that one must find and use their voice despite the surrounding noise. We are all poets in our own right, building verses and measuring the stanzas of our realities, praying some eyes and ears bear witness and listen. And, hopefully, read between the lines.