Mike De Leon behaving badly: A postscript

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Is "Citizen Jake" as relevant as Mike De Leon claims it is? And can he take responsibility for the film's mistakes and missteps? Screenshot from CITIZEN JAKE TRAILER/YOUTUBE

Editor’s note: Katrina Stuart Santiago is a writer of the essay in its various permutations — from art and theater reviews to political commentary — all always and necessarily bound by Third World Philippines. A curated selection of these critical essays appear in “Rebellions, Notes on Independence” and “Romances, Variations on Love,” two of her books published by the Ateneo de Naga University Press this year. The opinions expressed in this piece are the author’s.

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — I kept from watching “Citizen Jake” as a matter of arrogance. Not mine, but Mike De Leon’s. And I’m not even referring to his recent social media tantrums.

I hark back to late 2017, when the director called writer-editors of Rogue “assholes,” declaring he was stopping post-production on the movie, dedicating the decision to the people of the magazine to publish a story on him and his on-set behavior. Of course in what is now a familiar De Leon move of flip-flopping on his own statements, he then clarified that the work stoppage was not because of the article. He then, obviously, continued post-production on the film.

It was also in 2017 when De Leon picked a fight not so much with the Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF), but with the filmmakers it chooses and the audience that enjoys its films. None of what he said was new, but what was surprising was his elitism and entitlement: here was a director banking on his position in the film industry so he might get away with looking down on the works of other directors, never mind that he hasn’t been around for more than a decade and knows little of how filmmakers have negotiated with and intervened in the crisis of the commercial versus independent.

But few called out De Leon. He was churning out a new film after all, and his stature afforded him some leeway. Apparently, he could be forgiven anything. After all, his contributions to cinema are beyond question.

That we continue to hear these statements with the commercial release of “Citizen Jake” and De Leon’s nervous breakdowns and tantrums on social media is telling. That more and more of us will not stand for it is a welcome surprise.

Mike test 1, 2, 3

The acid test for De Leon was whether or not his film, the touted comeback, the celebrated opus, would measure up to expectations. After all, no one is arguing with his genius, his body of work, or his cinematic imagination. Besides, he himself, or his social media team (is that one and the same?) tended towards self-aggrandizement and humble brags throughout the film’s making and its release. What if it’s as brilliant as they say it is?

The March premiere of the film came with the expected praises; with it also came talk of how De Leon was eschewing a commercial release — purportedly a stand against the state of film commerce, which came with the requisite shoulder shrug: mayaman naman siya, he can afford it.

Two months later, news of a commercial release got the movie back in the news, along with praise releases and a Facebook page on promotional overdrive. The “Citizen Jake” campaign was on, and the noise reached fever pitch: positive reviews, whether full-length critiques or social media posts, proliferated. Grand declarations were made about the film’s bravery and power, its daring and fearlessness, its importance and value at this historical juncture. Expectations went through the roof.

And after its commercial release, De Leon had no choice but to hear about his film’s failures, in the midst of empty theaters, and some cinemas cutting the film’s run short.  

A dominant complaint was that the metafiction was not sustained, which meant losing justification for having chosen journalist Atom Araullo to play the lead role of journalist Jake Herrera. The narrative shifts were also ill-conceptualized, unless the goal was to confuse the audience into a stupor about what it was the film wanted to talk about: Baguio, our colonial past, the Marcoses? The rich, the political dynasties, the cronies? Violence, prostitution, class difference? Media, social media, fact, fake news? A friend put it succinctly: it’s like De Leon wanted to cram all 17 years of no filmmaking into one film.

For me though, the worst part was the lack of a strong political anchor for the film, seeing as it was its politics that was at the heart of De Leon’s claims about its relevance and importance. Not only does it offer nothing new about the Marcoses, it also fails to draw any real connection between the past and present dictatorships, not even given the Marcos kids. To make matters worse, it decided to paint historical facts of dynasties and cronyism as caricatures — nothing too detailed, no nuanced discussion.

De Leon on attack mode was prompted by the film’s commercial release, which forced him out of that echo chamber of praise from friends and fans. Outside of that echo chamber, “Citizen Jake” is fair game, and the only way De Leon could handle the negative reviews was to find someone to blame.

As such it became nothing more than the story of Jake, who is really just a rich kid struggling with his own family’s complicity in the state of a corrupt, violent nation. It was little else than a display of elite guilt that is unresolved until the end because the Marcos-crony-Senator and his Congressman-son die through acts of God. The journalist-son survives not to tell the tale, but to pass it on to us, the movie’s viewers.


As if to explain this ending, De Leon has said time and again that this film is about what the audience will do given the social cancer he’s revealed through the film. But that presumes the film actually equips us with the complex discussion necessary so that we can start talking about nation and what it needs. How does one act on changing the nation, when all we get here is a long-drawn-out superficial sermon about the Marcoses and our short memories?

There was also something offensive about the way this film treated its audience as if we were idiots: here, let me show you what happens next in the story, but just to be sure here’s a voice explaining what happened, and if you still don’t get it, here’s some text to help you out. (Sources tell me all this happened in post-production and was not in the script at all, which I tend to believe. The director has taken such pride in his editing work after all.)

De Leon also likes to use different versions of this statement: “My film may be fiction, but it is based on truths we ignore at our own risk.” But watching “Citizen Jake,” it is unclear who this collective “we” is, and what it is we’re purportedly ignoring.

Is it the Marcoses? Because the protests since 2016 have shown we are not ignoring that. Is it dynasties and cronyism? But then the film should’ve discussed those at length and in detail, instead of presuming that these exist in exactly the same way they did during the Marcos regime. Is it the return of a dictatorship? Then this film failed at drawing any clear nuanced connection between Marcos and Duterte, that would even justify how in the end it passed on the responsibility of change to its audience. Because what story are we supposed to be telling after this film, when its sense of history is so limited, its politics superficial at best?

If De Leon thinks elite guilt is something we don’t know about, then he’s in for a surprise. While he’s had the privilege of being recluse the past 17 years, the rest of us have lived with daily elitism via celebrity culture and local politics. We know of this violence, we live through it, we survive it. The guilt of the elite is in every government official who talks about the poor, wanting to alleviate them from poverty — but only as long as it doesn’t affect their elite interests.

De Leon claims this film is relevant, but other than telling us things we already know about nation, and in a manner that is skewed in favor of the rich boy who wants to do something significant but cannot renounce his own privilege — I mean Jake, not De Leon of course — what is relevant about this film?

De Leon says this film’s prophetic, and you can’t help but ask: pray tell how? What we got here were all the evils of Philippine society thrown into a pot, all blamed on the Marcoses, even as it does not work towards telling us why or how, refusing as it does to engage in a discussion about what has happened to us since 1986, who else is responsible for this state of affairs, and who is complicit in keeping the status quo. How can this place we already live in, this state of affairs we suffer through, and about which this film says nothing new, be prophetic?

Citizen Jake-2.jpg Atom Araullo and Mike De Leon were involved in a public spat, following De Leon's Facebook post about being disappointed at Araullo. Screenshot from CITIZEN JAKE TRAILER/YOUTUBE

Mike drops

De Leon says the film is not perfect. But instead of actually having the courage to take responsibility for its mistakes and missteps — or just hide from the public as some directors admittedly do in the face of negative reviews — this director decided he would perform a social media tantrum and talk ill about one of his actors.

That lucky person was Atom Araullo, who the director had handpicked to star as Jake, and whose acting (expectedly) fell short. Suffice it to say though that Atom’s acting was the least of this film’s problems. Besides, were Atom allowed to be the journalist that he is in the scenes where he is in fact playing a journalist, half the battle would’ve been won. But there was nothing believable about the journalist Jake in this film, least of which was the fact that he was aggressive and arrogant as he sat down in front of those responsible for the murder he was trying to solve, entering conversations with no notebook or recorders in sight. No self-respecting journalist would do that.

Then again, no self-respecting director would go ballistic on social media the way De Leon has, pointing a finger at Atom, not only critiquing his acting (which he was not hired for), but also his journalism (which is why he was chosen for the role to begin with). Who chose Atom for this job? De Leon did. But the director now says he wasn’t aware of the kind of journalistic work Atom was doing, which begs the question: you failed to do your research about the person you were hiring, and now you blame him for doing the work he does?

Certainly, there is reason to critique Atom’s work, especially given that McDonald’s docu-ad in Marawi, and even this turn towards a travel-lifestyle show while doing serious documentaries. But De Leon is taking aspects of Atom’s work in isolation from what he has done at least the past decade on television, and the years before that when we knew him as an activist. There is also a pettiness in zeroing in on Atom’s good looks, as if that is something he has control over; De Leon himself would be hard put to prove that Atom’s looks did not figure in handpicking him for the role of Jake.

But we forget: De Leon is blameless here. He is also shameless. He picked on everything from Atom’s journalism, to his upbringing, to the people that surround him, to the fans that he has. In the process De Leon also dismissed T.V. documentary work, calling it secondary to film documentaries, effectively putting down generations of T.V. documentarists. He responded to those who would either take Atom’s side, or just point out his bad behavior, by invoking his body of work and asserting that it speaks for itself.

Citizen Jake-4.jpg For the author, the film became nothing more than the story of Jake, played by Atom Araullo, who is really just a rich kid struggling with his own family’s complicity in the state of a corrupt, violent nation. Screenshot from CITIZEN JAKE TRAILER/YOUTUBE

In the course of his attacks, De Leon revealed he can do double-speak like it’s nobody’s business. On the one hand, he will say “Citizen Jake” has a life of its own; on the other, he will say the film and its director are one. He will call out someone for being narcissistic, yet he’s the one who invokes his stature, his past work, his name, his credibility, his family every chance he gets. He called out opinion writer Rina Jimenez-David who wrote a negative review of the film, saying that op-ed writers are not film critics, while at the same time praising op-ed writers who gave the film positive reviews.

When he kicked-off his anti-Atom posts, he defended himself by saying it was because he had already spoken about the other actors in the film and it was strange that he had yet to talk about Atom. Later on he said he started talking about Atom because he wasn’t just actor in the film, but also one of its scriptwriters.

It was then that I realized that this was no unprompted public tantrum. De Leon on attack mode was prompted by the film’s commercial release, which forced him out of that echo chamber of praise from friends and fans. Outside of that echo chamber, “Citizen Jake” is fair game, and the only way De Leon could handle the negative reviews was to find someone to blame.

And who better to blame than Atom? He who seems to have extricated himself from the cheering squad that has formed around De Leon, the same cheering squad that forgives him his bad behavior, by saying that this is nothing more than his “mercurial nature” and “eccentricities,” his “creativity” and “genius.”

Please. None of those things justify De Leon’s abusive rhetoric, baseless accusations, and hate and vitriol. The director himself saying that his ways are no secret, that his life is an open book, does not make his bad behavior any more acceptable. And people defending him based on his past achievements and not his current actions, does nothing but paint him as sacred cow, with his own set of fanatics ready to defend him no matter what.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

It is telling that as this film unfolded before me, and as it talked about the powerful among us, the abuse and violence they subject us to, and the monsters in our midst, that what it brought to mind was not just Marcos. Or Duterte. It also inevitably brought to mind De Leon.

If this is the social cancer we were supposed to be taught by “Citizen Jake,” then consider this a positive review.


“Citizen Jake” is still showing at Black Maria until June 12, Cinema 76 until June 14, and Cinema Centenario beginning June 12.