History Lessons


It was one of the perks, I guess, of using an outdated text book back when I was in fifth grade primary school to still read bits and traces of the nationalist-democratic movement’s thought in the popular mindset back then. It was in the discussion of post-colonial to fifties Philippine history back then that I get to learn terms such as “globalization” and “neocolonialism”, the conditions by which the IMF and the World Bank was founded, and how the Philippines became indebted to it. Which is why it comes as a surprise to me that most college students I get to talk to recently does not have an idea what these terms are or these establishments are for, or, if I get to find by luck, a certain student know only bits of it too: just the definition or only being left to the informational level (in Barthes’ terms) of the word’s meaning.

The coming, then, of Heneral Luna on Philippine movie theaters must have been quite as exciting as it is intriguing. It was released on a crucial time last year: mid-year 2015 when everyone is preparing to boil some water to warm up the upcoming Presidential elections. It must have been a breath of fresh air to some scholars of history that finally, as the box-office turn out reveals, some interest to history has been shown by the young generation – but only to receive the downside of the present-times’ way of presenting history.

This downside I’m referring to is the film’s actual lack (if not, the complete absence) of any real attempt to interrogate history to give way to “objectivity” and an aesthetic/formalist leaning. For what is this reduction of General Luna as a hero to being mere human (as much human as Aguinaldo, said Emil Nor Urao, since the film gave a dimension of him as not a “pure villain or superhero,” but as a “[h]uman who is [easily] influenced and has conscience” (translated from Filipino)) isn’t much a means to depict history accurately and/or objectively, but a device to paint the revolutionary history, the collective psyche, not with clarity but with blurs and doubt. Francis Cruz, on his Rappler review, couldn’t have been more wrong when he declared that “Tarog’s Heneral Luna… does not place its intent ahead of its craft”, since, it is precisely through these intelligent placement of formal elements – Tarog’s mastery of the craft – that its intent is being shown. Heneral Luna itself does not steer far from the cynicism (and bigotry towards his imagined “Filipino Population”) of Tarog’s features before this: from Confessional to Sana Dati.

As the opening disclaimer of the film says, they have taken the liberty to depict the events as they see fit: the film is as much fictive as it is factual as needed and/or intended. The narrative presented, then, and the manner those are presented, reflects its makers’ intention. Their makers’ interest. Going back to the disclaimer: “[t]here are bigger truths that can be reached by combining the REAL and the IMAGINARY”. Of who’s truth are we talking about here anyway if not theirs? (Besides, are they really sure they are depicting something “Real” here?)

But the narrative device chosen is a double edged sword: to depict the events “as it is”, the humans “as they are, mere humans”, does not save its creators/writers from being exposed open for us to read. Let’s say, we take Urao’s interpretation of the depiction of Aguinaldo seriously: as depicted in the film, the same can be applied to Felipe Buencamino too, who, by the end of the film, while outwardly lying about his involvement on the assassination of Luna, seem to regret his actions. And probably, if given a chance, they would have saved Pedro Paterno’s image too (by depicting him, too, not as a traitor but mere human).

“Mga kapatid, meron tayong mas malaking kaaway kaysa sa mga Amerikano. Ang ating sarili.” (Brothers, we have a bigger enemy than the Americans: ourselves.) Suppose, Luna really said this line in front of Aguinaldo’s cabinet: taken literally, aren’t we going to perceive this as Luna just addressing to the cabinet, only to the people in the room? The film also have taken the liberty to betray Luna using his own words to flow through the mouth of Captain Rusca and refer this line to address the whole of “Filipino people”, noting that “we are the ones who killed him.” Such is the way to save the ilustrados from the “misery” of their betrayal: to channel their own mistakes as the whole of population’s.

By extension, to blame “ourselves” of the country’s mishaps (regardless of class, ethnicity, and your degree of participation to the revolution) became the tool of those in power to place guilt over everyone of us, like a good old catholic priest’s sermon. This, in effect, deters us to shift our critical eye on structural oppression of the bourgeois compradors, landlords, and corporate owners, and to rather mind our own businesses, to point our fingers back to our own chests.

But to say that the film isn’t historically reliable would be a mistake. After all, “[t]he film is plotted precisely, never really focusing on the larger aspects of history but on the smaller stories that perfectly construct a hard-hitting picture of a revolution built on suspicion and dissent.” (Cruz, Rappler review). The smaller stories are actually, surprisingly accurate, as noted by historian-philosopher Domingo Castro de Guzman (over a private conversation), to the point that even or un-confirmable factoids (such as Trinidad Aguinaldo y Famy, Aguinaldo’s mother, looking out the window after Luna was assassinated and shouting, “Ano? Nagalaw pa ba yan?” (Is he not dead yet?)) are present. To prefer to pick up these seemingly accurate smaller stories, in line with the depiction of “humanity”, is to steer away from depicting history as history of revolutionary struggle, in effect, to deny every successes and advances of this history of revolution.

As if it’s not enough to transmit the film’s cynicism and defeatism by just depicting the humanistic errs of each characters and pointing the fingers back to ourselves, the film sought validation of its views from Luna’s enemies: America. The merry drunk caucasians on the pseudo-interview scenes in the end is depicted as though they are the only professionals of war between the Filipinos and Americans, thus, it was never complete without sharing five cents from them. After all, the Filipinos are depicted as traitors in this film, therefore, not one word is to be trusted. This very scene became the filmmakers’ contribution to the history of colonial pandering of the local bourgeoisie.

What is exposed throughout the film, in the final reading, is not really the “Filipinos” being the enemies of themselves, but the ideological leanings of its filmmakers in the class war and anti-imperialist war. “Heneral Luna perforce proclaims its avowal of service to the bourgeoisie,” said filmmaker Mauro Gia Samonte.

The film isn’t much the historical epic that we have been waiting for to ignite our interest to interrogate history, but yet, another work of propaganda serving ruling class interest (as most of the films being produced today). To deny and throw our revolutionary history away, since, as they say, our fall is of our own making. We can almost call this a hyper-exposure, since, after all, posters and promotional materials has already revealed the film as one of the Phillippines’ biggest comprador’s first venture into film production.

One response to “History Lessons”

  1. […] general, extravagantly performed, is seemingly anti-American. But the film isn’t just about him. It does not really uphold an anti-imperialist stance. But the images of extravagant and violent hero sold better, and as intended. New Age Maoism do not […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *