Mean streets

31 January 2018

In Alberto Monteras II’s Respeto, a gritty, realistic examination of the complex relationship between hip hop culture and inner city violence, the past is the key to the present and the present is very much rooted in the past.

An elderly bookstore owner (Dido De La Paz), once a radical poet and powerful voice of protest during the martial law era of former President Ferdinand Marcos finds himself crossing paths and engaging with impoverished teenagers struggling to survive in the slums of Pandacan, Manila, just as current President Rodrigo Duterte pursues his controversial war on drugs.

Both Filipino leaders are hardly mentioned in Respeto- Marcos' legacy is briefly considered on a radio programme- but the debut feature length by Monteras, who has had a pretty successful career in the Philippines shooting music videos, concerts and television shows, is nothing if not political. By examining the effects of government policies and actions on the lives of the urban poor, Monteras tells a story that is old as time, but at the same time, just of the moment.

Hendrix (rap superstar Abra) is an impoverished teenager living with his sister Connie (Thea Yrastorza) and her mid-level drug pusher boyfriend, Mando (Brian Arda). Hendrix dreams of making it out of the slums and the only means he knows of making his dreams a reality is rap, the music of the streets. Hendrix, like many young people in his circumstances have no visible role models and therefore sees no purpose in getting an education. He spends his days idling away around town, watching his friend paint graffiti drawings on street corners, and his nights battling for respect in the rap underground scene.

This particular way of life hands victory only to the strongest and Hendrix isn’t just battling for survival, he is also fighting to be make his voice heard. For it is this voice that will eventually give him the impetus to haul himself and his friends out of the crippling despondency that surrounds them. It is also his voice, and his skill on the mic that will place him higher on the ghetto’s pecking order.

Respeto is very respectful of the urban music culture that it depicts in such thrilling form. The music is in itself, another character in the story and the screenplay deftly weaves in witty rhymes with spoken word poetry, both forms set to dark, heavy beats that dictate the pace at which the plot must move. Is rap a credible escape from the violence of the slums, or does it inexplicably lead to more violence? Respeto, screening in the Bright Future Main Programme at the International Film Festival, Rotterdam, poses some interesting questions but provides limited answers.

Respeto shares some obvious similarities with the 2002 Eminem semi autobiography film, 8Mile but ultimately stands on its own as a resonating study of trauma. On a basic level, Respeto is deeply moving coming of age story that tracks the relatable evolution of a young man. But peel back the layers and the film is also the story of a country and an interrogation of the ways that it consistently fails its citizens. In the Philippines, the present is the past and there is simply no getting out.

A botched attempt at robbing a neighborhood second hand bookstore lands Hendrix and his crew in trouble with the authorities. The store owner, a grumpy, old decommissioned poet, Doc (De La Paz) nursing tensions with his own biological son offers to rehabilitate the teenagers. He takes a particular fancy to Hendrix and a significant portion of the film is devoted to observing these two kindred spirits as they push each other’s buttons and learn to engage with the other, first with derision, and then with a grudging respect.

The screenplay, credited to Monteras and Njel de Mesa. is fast paced and thrilling and Monteras’ direction is sure footed as he works within his comfort zone. The story does get a little too thick, when the back story to Doc’s ornery character is revealed but it makes his ultimate redemption plausible. Not quite the same for the two characters who make up Hendrix’s core team. They get significant screen time but contribute so little to the advancement of the plot, that they might as well have been left out from the start.

The world that Respeto exists in is a vicious cycle where victims of the system go on to raise a new generation of victims. The pain and the trauma that is cast aside festers until it builds into the open wound that is the film’s violent, climatic sequence.
Hendrix finally earns his respect all right, but it comes at an unspeakable cost.

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