Citizen Jake is billed as a film about the present political landscape of the Philippines, but there is no news in what it reveals: politicians are corrupt, judges are unjust, dissenters suffer harassment, women struggle with patriarchy, and the poor remain powerless. It does not attempt to make its own politics neutral: the film is blatantly anti-Marcos, and for that reason it is bound to be denounced by citizens of certain convictions. In one scene depicting the everyday corruption of a low-ranking law enforcer, the camera pans to momentarily highlight the Duterte posters displayed outside his house.
There is no news either in this film’s plot of political intrigue, crimes and conspiracies. Jake Herrera (Atom Araullo), a former professional journalist, now teacher and blogger-cum-‘citizen journalist’, is waging a personal war against social evils while struggling with his familial relationships to the very kind of corrupt politician he is crusading against. There is nothing particularly surprising in its story and the verbal and visceral violence that comes with it. When Citizen Jake manages to say something intriguing, something that finally feels fresh, it is when it veers away from the overtly political, as when Jake contemplates his friendship with a household servant.
But while Citizen Jake’s politics is predictable, and most of its insights familiar and conventional, the way it presents them is not. In the opening scene, Jake speaks to the camera, introducing the film as a story enhanced by the techniques of Cinema. Early on, commenting on the setting of Baguio City, there is a history lecture presented through a slide show of old photographs. Throughout the story there are narrative interludes enhanced by intertitles that echo words from the voice-over, stark white on a black background, looking like newspaper headlines, or protest slogans. Supporting characters are often presented in quick cut scenes, portrait-style, with the actors looking straight into the camera—looking straight at you, the audience. Citizen Jake even has a montage of its own behind-the-scenes footage, showing the actors surrounded by cameras, microphones, lighting set-ups and the crew. This film is fictional, but it is often presented as if it were a documentary.
Indeed: Jake’s brother Roxie (Gabby Eigenmann), noticing how their family appears to be living out a political thriller, takes to quoting from The Godfather movies. Annoyed, their father, the corrupt and misogynist senator Jacobo Herrera (Teroy Guzman), tells him to shut up: “Roxie, this is not a movie.” He is right—they are not in The Godfather, but neither is Citizen Jake merely a movie.
The film’s dedication to blurring the boundaries between fact and fiction informs the casting. Araullo may be a first-time film actor, but Filipinos watching Citizen Jake will recognize him as the established young journalist he is in real life. He is not a blank canvas, a fresh face, tasked to create a personality from scratch; the audience is already projecting the idea of an idealistic young man onto his character the moment they enter the theater. Araullo’s performance is a little raw, but that is inconsequential, because there is no need for his acting here to be exceptional—because the start of the performance is the very fact of his casting. By accepting the role, he has already accomplished half the job.
What casual audiences may not realize is the sense of importance that heralds Citizen Jake. The Godfather is not the only classic film it references; the title itself recalls 1941’s Citizen Kane, which critics have often hailed as the greatest film of all time. Kane and Jake relate to each other on at least three aspects: first, Kane is the story of Charles Foster Kane, a fictional newspaper mogul, and his character arc resembles Jake’s; second, Kane is partially a comment on the relationship of mass media and politics, while Jake similarly contemplates the place of journalism and new media in a post-truth world; and third, Kane gathered various innovations in cinematic techniques to produce a film revolutionary for its time, while Jake has elements of post-modern cinema (the breaking of the fourth wall, etc.) which, while not new, are certainly not conventional in Filipino cinema. (On that last aspect: Citizen Jake is celebrated director Mike de Leon’s first film in nearly two decades; his last film was 2000’s Bayaning 3rd World, a film that employs even more experimental techniques than Citizen Jake to interrogate the legacy of Jose Rizal.)
Enthusiasts of Filipino cinema therefore have been looking forward to Citizen Jake, and certainly there are pleasurable aspects in watching this film. It has well-dressed people and beautifully-designed sets, captured with dynamic cinematography. (It plays with the colors, as Jake promises in the opening speech). The musical score is bittersweet and pensive. The scenes are full of strong performances by veteran thespians—Teroy Guzman, Lou Veloso, Cherie Gil, Nonie Buencamino, and many more. Citizen Jake, in other words, is an audio-visual presentation that pleases the senses, that entertains—it is a movie, after all.
But it is also much more than a movie, if watched with the slightest sense of conscientiousness. It cannot be enjoyed without also feeling unease. The ensemble of social issues it sweeps through is too important, too unsettling to ignore. It leaves a sense of hopelessness, for Jake’s “futile crusade”, for the realization that despite our best intentions, and because of our failures as citizens, you and I are complicit too in the failures of this nation and society.
However, the same can be said of many other political films. Citizen Jake’s contribution is that it confounds fact and fiction, it plays with our expectations of make-believe in cinema. The film has a strange way of telling its fiction, but, as Jake himself recalls for us, truth is stranger than fiction. Countless political dramas have portrayed all-powerful politicians intimidating judges to bend the law, or killing off lowlifes as if they were insects—and after watching, we convince ourselves that that is merely fiction, mere entertainment, that those crimes are too evil and dramatic to be true. This film asks us to think again, and insinuates: truth is worse than fiction.
Citizen Jake thereby draws a powerful connection between cinema and journalism. Journalism these days is under constant accusation of being nothing more than fabrications. Citizen Jake is something of the opposite: a fiction that could be accused of journalism, of presenting profound truths while purporting to be a work of imagination.
Film still screen-captured from the official trailer.