MMFF 2022: Deleter explores real-time and real-life horror in content moderation

Nathalie Tomada - The Philippine Star
MMFF 2022: Deleter explores real-time and real-life horror in content moderation
Nadine Lustre topbills the Metro Manila Film Festival 2022 entry Deleter, which explores the shadowy and secretive world of content moderators.

MANILA, Philippines — The Metro Manila Film Festival (MMFF) 2022 entry Deleter explores the “secretive” and “shadowy” world of people responsible for taking down offensive and harmful content before it reaches the general public online.

The techno-thriller directed by Mikhail Red, who also wrote the script with Nikolas Red, follows Lyra, an employee at an online content moderation office where “deleters,” as workers are called, filter graphic content from being uploaded on social media platforms. This “censorship” job appears to be tolerable for Lyra who is perceived by co-workers as someone who couldn’t care less about the distressing imagery that they encounter every day. However, unknown to them, her seeming indifference to the horrors online masks the deep-seated trauma that she also wants erased and forgotten.

Direk Mikhail said Deleter is the accumulation of the interest, intrigue and fascination in the occupation of these “content moderators”. He was first introduced to this world by way of articles, interviews and documentaries.

“Ever since the explosion of our social media networks, it’s been a question that we’ve been wondering like who takes down our posts? It cannot be AI (artificial intelligence), you know, someone has to do it,” he told The STAR in an exclusive interview. “And eventually nga, dumami yung articles talking about this job na napaka-mysterious, very behind-the-scenes type of work.

“Eventually, there have been documentaries, interviews, and then they started coming out, these content moderators that are very shadowy and secretive. In fact, when they are being interviewed online, naka-censor yung mukha nila or naka-mask.

“Sometimes, they explain hindi daw maganda yung working conditions and the job is difficult and that it’s something very novel, very new, because kelan lang ba nagka-explosion ng social media platforms and anyone can just post anything?… And this is outsourced to developing countries because the rates are different and we’ve become the ‘capital’ for content moderation.”

All this led to the idea of exploring real-time and even real-life horror being experienced by these content moderators on a daily basis. “Because they have to watch and basically filter all the filth of society para silang first line of defense or front liner on the internet,” Mikhail said.

Mikhail Red is director and co-writer (with Nikolas Red) of the techno-horror film produced by Viva.

After watching a 2018 documentary, The Cleaners, about the industry of digital cleaning while he was attending the Rotterdam film festival for his film NeoManila, he further built on the idea Deleter as he also realized that this subject has never been delved into, fiction-wise.

“There are other films that deal with something similar like ma-techno horror films, mga censor-possessor types of movies but nothing about this. So, I think it’s very interesting.”

He also believes it’s the best time to do these kinds of genre films because the wonders of technology make them more accessible to a larger audience. He cited, as an example, how Deleter’s trailer alone is being discussed by younger generations on TikTok and he’s very much happy that it opens up that kind of conversation and interest online. More so, he pointed out, the film premieres on such a platform like the annual MMFF, which is now fully theatrical after two years of the pandemic.

Deleter marks several firsts for the 31-year-old director, best-known for such critically-acclaimed films Birdshot, Eerie and Dead Kids. It’s his first time to collaborate with producer Viva Films and participate in the MMFF.

“We had no expectations (of making it to MMFF) and it’s actually my first collaboration with Viva. I’m a freelancer. I’ve worked with Netflix, Star Cinema and it’s really more about trying to make a good project and seeing sino yung compatible na partner dito. And then Viva came and they were really great. It’s my first time working with them and yet, creatively, they let us do our thing. In fact, this is R-rated horror, we really didn’t hold back,” he said.

“It’s new on a lot of fronts and for a big studio like Viva, it’s really cool nga na in-allow nila yun and tinry lang nila i-submit. Shockingly, (we made it as an entry) because, I think, very coveted yung horror slot in the MMFF because you have a captured-audience market.

“So, I think this might, hopefully, be my most-watched movie. Even though I started very independent, may mga arthouse films, this movie might be seen by most people. It’s interesting and exciting at the same time.”

It was also his first time working with actress Nadine Lustre in Deleter. He expressed his appreciation for his lead star’s portrayal given that the role required nuanced acting — from the twitch of the eye to the hand movements. According to Mikhail, the film is more reliant on facial expressions than dialogue when reflecting or manifesting the traumatic imagery the characters see on screen.

He said of the actress: “Kaya OK ka work si Nadine because she really has a grasp of cinema, of film. I mean, mas veteran siya sa akin for sure, and mas maraming times siya nakapunta sa film set projects, whether it be film, series or ads. So, she has a strong grasp of the craft and I think that’s important when you’re doing genre movies, especially horror.

Nadine also co-stars with Jeffrey Hidalgo in Deleter.

“It’s not just an acting piece, you need to be technical about it because ang daming moving parts ang horror movie — there’s the camera, lights, markers on the ground. You need to react to something that isn’t there. You need to have a vivid imagination. So, yun ang magaling kay Nadine. And she also watches horror movies. She understands, I guess, the science of filmmaking, not just the emotional side of it.”

Meanwhile, asked about the overall message of his film, Mikhail said, “With Deleter, without spoiling it, thematically, it’s simply about you can’t just delete or ignore the truth. You can’t just filter the truth or even tolerate it. You have to confront it. You have to challenge it.

“I think that’s the point of Deleter because our main character is like that. You have to be numb, apathetic, you have to wear a mask and every day, you see the world, the society, on the screen, but you’re not participating in it, you’re just a spectator watching all the viral videos, crime videos and gory stuff on screen.

“And then, parang nagiging meaningless to you kasi mabilis ka dapat mag- filter — ignore, delete, ignore, delete, it’s a cycle. So, the point of the story is you can’t just keep doing that. At some point, you need to challenge it, you need to confront what’s wrong. You can’t just delete your trauma or your problems.”

Deleter opens on Christmas Day, Dec. 25.

Louise delos Reyes experiences horror in a scene from the movie.


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