TROLL is a word that has evolved. It used to refer to a doll with an ugly face and abundant neon-colored hair. I had one of those in high school. The traditional definition goes: It is a mythical, cave-dwelling being depicted in folklore as either a giant or a dwarf, typically having a very ugly appearance.
Now trolls take on a different meaning altogether. They are those who sow discord on the internet. They start arguments and upset people by posting inflammatory, extraneous or off-topic messages in an online community.
We’ve seen trolls at work. They are active, at whatever time of day, and you can easily spot them in, say, the comments section of online publications such as this one. They react to the article, or bash the author, or pick a fight with other commenters. Sometimes they write things completely unrelated to the article they are supposed to be reacting to. They talk tough.
It may be that they are just earnest social media users who feel too strongly about the world and the people around them. True, their comments are incendiary and controversial, often not based on hard facts or present the complete picture.
Sometimes, they are professionals.
PETA’s A Game of Trolls starts this way—a bunch of paid hacks waging a war with others online. The exercise is akin to “bunong braso” where a battle is won by whoever makes the stronger take-down statement, whether or not it makes sense. They are employed by a shrewd businessman called Bimbam, whose family nurtures ties with a political family deposed decades ago but which is trying to stage a comeback in the present political scene.
Hector, played by Myke Salomon, is a thirtysomething employee in this trolling business. He sometimes questions the things they are made to write online, but he needs the job. He shares an apartment with his friends, and is one day surprised when his mother Tere (Upeng Fernandez) visits. In fact she asks if she could stay a few days—and her son is not too thrilled.
We soon learn the roots of Hector’s Mom issues. He felt she abandoned him in favor of her advocacy. Growing up, he envied other children who had their parents with them all the time. His mother was almost always away, not knowing when she would see him or even how long she could stay with him at any given time.
Aling Tere had reason to fight. She was tortured and raped by her captors. It so damaged her relationship with her husband that, when they finally were set free and had a son, the marriage deteriorated. He started another family while she continued to go around the country helping the poor and doing her bit to make the world seem a little more just.
Meanwhile, Hector is also confronted by ghosts—real ones, of personalities he just read or heard about. Among those killed during the regime were Bobby dela Paz, Eman Lacaba, Edgar Jopson. Hector doubts whether their stories are true, especially since his employer is in the business of telling the younger generation that those dark days were in fact the most glorious in the country’s history.
In the manner of A Christmas Carol, the ghosts visit Hector and convince him that their stories are not fiction, and that they were real, and that just because he was not yet around during those times does not mean they must be forgotten, or even negated. In fact, they must be told and retold.
These ghosts may as well speak to millennials, whose knowledge of what happened before their time is easily shaped and swayed by what is available online. The scary thing is, anybody can make anything available online.
In the end, Hector quits his job and mends his relationship with his mother after learning of her harrowing past. He begins to understand that in fighting for the many, she was also fighting for him, and that there is no single way for a mother to show her love for her child. This happened to be Tere’s way.
As for trolling—it suffices that we know better than dignify their trade by replying or getting into arguments with them. It’s a futile act, because there is no room for healthy, reasonable discourse. The good news is that we get to pick our battles; engaging with trolls would be an utter waste of time and energy. In the end, the new definition is not such a far cry from the original after all: both are ugly.
A Game of Trolls was written by Liza Magtoto and directed by Maribel Legarda. It will be shown again in September this year at the PETA-Phinma Theater in New Manila, Quezon City. It is also available for mobile staging around the country for the rest of the year.