The society of respected film critics that hands out the annual Gawad Urian in cinematic excellence

Jay: Censuring TV 'infotainment'

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By Lito B. Zulueta

In Francis Xavier Pasion’s mordant “Jay,” the brutal killing of a gay TV employee in his own pad in Manila occasions a media scramble. TV journalist Jay (Baron Geisler), the victim’s namesake, gets to the family in Pampanga ahead of the pack, lures the relatives to Manila and turns out a footage of the mother breaking down at the sight of her carrion-son at the morgue. High TV drama, except that it was staged. Finding the footage damaged after the victim had been buried, Jay had asked the woman to repeat the “breakdown.” She had performed like a pro. This is what televiewers see.

Taking liberties with the factual is possible because by the time the crime is broadcast, Jay has ingratiated himself to the relatives and struck a deal for an “exclusive” in exchange for a possible donation from the network. The donation doesn’t come but, by then, the entire town will do or say anything on-cam for their 15 minutes of fame. The moral could be, “The truth is not what it seems.” But this is all tendentious, if not hackneyed. To be sure, Pasion makes sure that an element of ambiguity is always present in the film which he also wrote.

First, there’s the journalistic side: There really was a cause celebre some years back over the murder of a TV exec whose brutalized body was found in his own place. Second, Pasion writes for TV and he himself is an ambiguity. “Jay” may be semi- or fully autobiographical, depending on whether you look to Pasion as the victim or the little liar (or a little of both). Third is the technical element: Pasion skillfully weaves the real and the digital, sometimes blurring the distinction, especially when the viewer not only willingly suspends disbelief, but altogether jettisons it. The viewer reposes his trust on the camera at the risk of getting altogether fooled.

The last element is probably what made “Jay” stand out in the 2008 Cinemalaya film festival, where it won the grand prize. It fully and creatively utilizes the resources of digital technology in a movie that is a commentary on how that technology could be abused.

The title refers to both victim and victimizer, providing a striking conceit on the Janus-faced quality of reality. The victim is a respectable teacher who leads a double-life. The reporter, himself gay, genuinely condoles with the victim’s family but can’t resist using the access he has gained to score a scoop.

As the reporter, Baron Geisler shows both genuine humanity and utter repulsiveness, a potent combination that is riveting. Flor Salanga as the mother and Coco Martin as the ex-lover deliver very competent performances.

The movie is a wake-up call. TV journalism has become much like creative non-fiction that breaks the distinction between what’s public and what’s personal, what’s real and what’s “dramatized.”

Hosts of several public affairs shows are now celebrities, too, who present their viewpoints as objective and true. Journalism becomes a personal journal, or blog.

Some may look at this as a psychosis, but it’s also market-driven. The rush to score a scoop, the inordinate focus on crimes of passion, sex and violence, the flood of gossip that passes for entertainment news (often generated by the networks to promote their stars), the mercenary melding of information and entertainment (“infotainment”)—these seem to have removed broadcast journalism from the business of presenting the relevant truth.

Investigative shows point hidden cameras at the sex underworld, ignoring more damaging other underworlds, because it’s the easier thing to do, and more ratings-friendly.

“Jay” is mute on this. It points the accusing finger to the audience for consuming TV garbage like fast-food. Like the victim’s kin and friends who find, in Jay’s death, a silver lining, a silver tinsel, as it were—an “American Idol” audition. When the reporter shows up, the victim’s sister mistakes him for somebody from “Pinoy Big Brother” since she has applied to be a “housemate.” Interviewed, the victim’s former teacher-colleague bursts into tears because she says the scene calls for it.

All of this shows total audience corruption, and it is the singular power of “Jay” to provide a jolt of recognition to the corrupter and the corrupted. Watch it, but be warned.