MANILA, Philippines – Every single minute, over 500 hours of video are posted on YouTube. Daily, there are about 95 million photos and videos shared on Instagram, 100 million hours of video consumed on Facebook, and over 500 million tweets released on Twitter. At this rate, it’s not an overstatement to say that media content has long been defining the way we think and act, for better or worse, especially in the Philippines – one of the world’s top internet users after South Africa.
Behind the sheer volume of information we encounter online are content moderators who do the dirty work of digital cleaning, deciding what content we can consume.
This premise informs Mikhail Red’s latest work Deleter, which won seven awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, and the Best Actress award for Nadine Lustre, at the 2022 Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF) Gabi ng Parangal on Tuesday, December 27.
At the center of the film is Lyra (Lustre), an outsourced worker for a content review company, a so-called deleter tasked to filter inappropriate and violent images from seeping through the depths of virtual space. Her fellow workers see Lyra as calm and collected, unfazed by the amount of graphic uploads she has to delve into on a daily basis just to reach her quota. Little do they know that she takes “calming” medication supplied by her creepy boss Simon (Jeffrey Hidalgo) to get the job done. The internal turmoil soon becomes more apparent as Lyra witnesses the suicide of her co-worker Aileen (Louise delos Reyes) after a nervous breakdown in their office.
This isn’t the first time that Red tries his hand at the horror genre following Eerie (2019), set in an all-girls Catholic school. In Deleter, Red literally and figuratively traps his characters in the dark, claustrophobic corners of the film’s office setting to shape tension and satisfy audience expectation. One can also appreciate how Red trades cheap jump scares for eerie mood to induce fright, which is reminiscent of Japanese horror films such as Hideo Nakata’s Ringu (1998) and Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Kairo (2001) that thrive on this trope, as noted by film critic Ronald Cruz.
This atmosphere is amped up by a sinister sound design and manic editing that knows how to juxtapose the lead character’s interior struggle with the vile and nauseating images she subjects herself in.
The script, written by Mikhail alongside sibling Nikolas, offers to an extent a well-meaning social commentary on how outsourced content moderation, like any work of capitalist nature, could be dehumanizing, incorporating details such as poor labor compensation, the existence of “Bilibid” rooms that barely provide refuge to the distressed employees, and what they do to cope with the demands of the job. Because that in itself is far more terrifying than the film’s intentional scare tactics.
Documentary films such as Adrian Chen and Ciaran Cassidy’s The Moderators (2017) and Hans Block and Moritz Riesewieck’s The Cleaners (2018) have already reckoned with the ethics of this business practice, taking a stab at tech giants and the imbalances of power involved in it, with the latter including former Filipino content moderators as subjects.
And given how poorly discussed the matter is, Deleter could have extended its critique of how labor from the Global South is often caught in this shadow of internet technology, how the thin line between moderation and censorship figures in a space replete with propaganda and disinformation, and how the pandemic has practically confined us to our screens by confronting head-on the repercussions these might have posed to the film’s characters.
Yet the Reds refuse to capitalize on this, putting to waste the film’s solid technical work, save for the lighting mishap (BPO offices often keep the lights on). If anything, Deleter comes off like a piece that tiptoes between wanting to be a techno-horror, poltergeist story, or psychological thriller, only to leave a lot to be desired on all ends.
What one knows about this specific realm of the BPO industry is only ever implied, apart from the generic ignore-delete detail of the traumatizing job. The film is so keen to forge mysteries – or at least the impression of it – but hardly unpacks them. What of Lyra’s backstory and her relationship with Aileen? How is Aileen’s haunting of Lyra fundamentally related to content moderation? And so on.
Regardless of one’s sentiments about whether or not the story works, one cannot deny that Deleter banks on Lustre’s arsenals as an actress. Lustre creates a walking contradiction out of Lyra. In one moment, she takes comfort in her apathy and uses it as a defense mechanism against any real, human connections (“We handle data, not people”), the next she swiftly develops genuine care for what her co-worker suffered through, although one can argue that such care might stem from guilt.
Lustre’s deadpan acting complements the film’s state of surrender to the very network of neglect that acclimates one to violence, as if to say that, in this line of work, gray areas no longer exist. It’s chilling how Lyra has resigned herself to the status quo, despite the gnawing awareness of how it feels to be ignored as part of the working class.
Lustre makes one stay until the credits roll even if the final reveal registers like a lousy narrative choice, even if the film hardly holds space for better imagination out of this limbo of robotic existence. This might just be a close second to the actress’s performance in Antoinette Jadaone’s Never Not Love You (2018), so it’s no wonder that she has taken home the Best Actress plum at the festival’s Gabi ng Parangal.
It’s a shame that the film feels the urge to explain itself toward the conclusion – a creative decision that ends up like a stretch precisely because it defeats what could have been a meaty premise and razor-sharp message.
In a sense, Deleter situates us in the nightmares of the corporate world and digital age: how convenient it is to become complicit to workplace abuse to remain in the good graces of the people in authority; how self-agency, no matter how well-intentioned, can only go so far in a system that is very much willing to cave in to injustice; and how the things we choose to consume also consume us in return.
For a film that takes cues from the basics of digital content moderation, Deleter conflates what it is supposed to conceal and unveil, stunting its promising potential altogether. – Rappler.com
Deleter is now showing in cinemas nationwide.