‘Citizen Jake’: a sociology of Filipino society

Mike de Leon’s new film, “Citizen Jake,” is a psychosocial drama that focuses on the personal contradictions of a crusading upper middle class “citizen journalist” who appears to lack insight into his own privileges. His inquiry into a gruesome crime leads him to a profound realization of the corrupt system in which he—and, indeed, all of us—are complicit.

This realization makes Jake Herrera (competently portrayed by Atom Araullo) angry, and frustrated. As a blogger-journalist, he seeks to make a small dent on the public consciousness, which seems indifferent to the corruption and injustice of everyday life. But, he is soon overwhelmed by the immense complexity of society and the seeming futility of changing it. Filipinos appear to quickly forget the sufferings heaped upon them, and the battles they recurrently fight to end these, preferring the certitudes of a hierarchical society led by strongmen.

But, that’s just one way of looking at this totally absorbing movie. One may also view it as a sociopolitical study of Philippine realities whose basic aim is not so much to provide answers as to ask disturbing questions. This perspective, which I prefer, permits the mass media to fulfill one of their fundamental social functions — i.e., “the constant generation and processing of irritation — and neither in increasing knowledge nor in socializing or educating people in conformity to norms.” (Luhmann, The Reality of the Mass Media, 2000)

It is probably fitting that the movie’s first screenings are being held at the University of the Philippines Film Institute. Here, it will likely draw the kind of crowd that will analyze it to death. I myself would recommend it to my colleagues in the sociology faculty as a vital learning material for our introductory courses on Philippine society, political sociology, and social systems theory.

But, it would be most unfortunate if this sensitive work by the reclusive filmmaker Mike de Leon, his first after an 18-year hiatus, were to be hailed as a classic by aficionados but ignored by the rest of the Filipino moviegoing public.  For, it is not the intellectuals that change society but the people themselves, as a result of their own changing perception of events and their own growing realization of their power to modify their circumstances.  The most that intellectuals and those who deal in ideas can do for social change is to irritate the social system, with the objective of interrupting its self-reproducing routines.

But, indeed, there is nothing certain in the way people perceive and react to events. Let us not forget that they, too, are caught in the same system, replicating practices and habits of thought that are part and parcel of the adaptive culture they have internalized.  The single outsider to the system—the grizzled activist teacher Lucas (forcefully played by Lou Veloso) who preserves the vision of a better society in his poems—is a lonely figure who sometimes makes a nuisance of himself in a bar filled with young unappreciative people.

Examples of the hierarchical culture at work abound in this film.  Despite its modern manifestations, what is projected is, in every sense, a feudal and a highly stratified way of life based on fear and loyalty, and knowing one’s place. There is the relationship between the patriarch and members of his family, and between the family as a whole and their flock of submissive house help and caretakers who forever wait on them. There is the conflicted relationship between the authoritarian husband and the unhappy wife who is consigned to the margins of her husband’s public life. There is the relationship between the patriarch as politician and the family of his long dead patron and idol (here epitomized by Marcos). There is the rivalry between siblings, and the primal attachment of a son to his mother. And, lastly, there is the relationship between the boss and his doggedly loyal bodyguard, the latter signifying raw brutal power without the occasional benevolence.

The ghosts of past and present resentments inhabit this film from beginning to end. Of such magnitude is the anger that builds up throughout the film that one is left wondering what form of catharsis would be sufficient to relieve it.

The path that Jake takes is both personal and political. He gets a gun, a weapon that is antithetical to his vocation as a journalist, and vents his anger on someone who embodies the banality of evil, his father’s bodyguard. Then he turns to the audience and offers the film as a public testament to his own family’s ignominious contribution to everything that ails Filipino society. Thus, the film ends where it begins: the experience and documentation of power and submission, of privilege and hopelessness, of violence and impunity, and the corruption and hypocrisy that permeate politics, law, and family in our society.

Those who are looking for answers to the nation’s persistent problems may be disappointed. Mike de Leon offers a complex meditation on what troubles our society, but not solutions. Neither does he project the character of Jake Herrera as an inspiring model of engaged citizenship.  But, I am sure it is his hope that the film as a whole may lead Filipino viewers to a better understanding of where we are as a people and why we keep pinning our hopes on leaders who promise simplistic solutions to very complex problems.

The figure of Ferdinand Marcos is everywhere in this film, but there is not a single mention of Rodrigo Duterte. Still, I came away convinced that this is actually the story of a society that breeds and creates a need for the Marcoses and Dutertes of this world.