*Spoilers ahead, in case you needed more warning than the title.
Respeto, one of the films to have premiered at this year’s Cinemalaya and currently showing in theaters nationwide, has been lauded for its explicit political slant, referencing both the brutal years of Ferdinand Marcos’s Martial Law and Rodrigo Duterte’s ongoing drug war. The film initially postures as a narrative gearing for triumph a la Rocky — one assumes that Hendrix (played by Abra), a budding rapper who finds refuge and meaning in hip-hop, writes his way out of dire conditions, along with the help of Doc (played by Dido de la Paz), the owner of a secondhand bookstore who guides Hendrix along, like a mentor of the old guard.
You set yourself up to believe they’re going to make it, but that’s not what happens.
The film ends this way: After Hendrix is pursued by a corrupt police officer who kills his sister and her boyfriend, their chase ends up at Doc’s bookstore, where Doc tries to convince the officer (who is also his son!) to spare Hendrix’s life. In a fit of rage, Hendrix pounces on the officer with the latter’s back turned and beats him up (presumably to death). The characters on screen bear witness to what is taking place as — and this is where it gets a little abstract — sheets of paper fall from the sky and scatter. I’ve been thinking about this scene for weeks, and I’m not over it, and I’d like to explain why.
I think that especially in times as dark and politically brutal as this, it is important to devise strategies of resistance. How, as a regular citizen, can I actively push back against the larger forces that antagonize us daily? This is a question that I think writers (and by writers I mean, whoever believes they can change the world with words) must concern themselves with. Literature helps deepen our understanding of the world and our place in it, and develops empathy, so of course any writer (and any creative in general) should evaluate the value of their work in relation to the bigger sociopolitical picture.
But because the question is complicated, the answers are also not easy to digest. The American poet Marie Howe once said in an interview, “The moral life is lived out in what we say more often than [in] what we do.” And I suppose that’s partly true, when we express rage on social media, but some forms accomplish more than mere saying can. There is also the problematic way we look at literary activism. According to this piece by the literary blog of Poetry Foundation, “Empty rituals of cultural recognition and endless stage-managed ‘dialogue’ are continually offered as substitutes for even minimal reforms to state policy, laws, and the economy.” We would do well to rid ourselves of the messianic illusion that a good piece of literature, or a Justice League of creatives, can turn a country upside down. Words can only do so much.
This is why the last scene of Respeto is so damn striking. It’s all these doubts about the power of language, of art, colliding into a single image. Pages falling from the sky and scattering at the feet of those who thought they could find refuge in words — what a poignant way to portray a worldview falling apart in the face of evil.
I’m not here to make arguments about the merits of the film. But the last scene compelled me to think more deeply about what it means when we employ the power of words for the greater good. There’s this wonderful interview that Cordite conducted with Filipino poet and teacher Conchitina Cruz, in which she basically states that while poetry is powerful, it alone isn’t enough to change our current material realities. “Because it is not unusual for making art to be valorised as a form of resistance, or for ‘the personal is political’ to at times be used to validate self-indulgence and political reticence, I would also still prefer to magnify the line that divides art and life, and insist that writing poetry” — or in this case, literature in general — “is unequal to marching on the streets.”
Perhaps it’s a matter then of reframing the concern, the uneasiness. There is more to be unpacked, regarding the nuances of what it means to fight the system with language, but I want to take away from that final scene is not that I have a new reason to despair, but a responsibility to keep it real. Words can change the world, but not words alone.