Saturday, July 09, 2011

Quienes son amigos de la patria Filipina?: A movie review of "Amigo"

A still from "Amigo" by John Sayles
The late William Henry "Scotty" Scott, esteemed American historian and lay minister of the Episcopal Church in the Philippines wrote in "Ilocano Responses to American Aggression 1900-1901" that a few years after the Philippines was finally recognized as independent, the nationalist trend of the 1950s led the Department of Education in 1951 to interview the few surviving veterans of the Filipino War against American Imperialism a.k.a "Philippine-American War" and the then present generation of Filipinos about the war. So thorough was the American colonial education system and its historical cleansing of that period in history that Filipinos knew more of the revolt against "backward" Spain and friar abuses than the American atrocities of the anti-imperialist war.

This historical amnesia poisons US-Philippine relations to this day. No amount of dancing to the beat of "Papaya" by former US envoy Kirstie Kenney  or an Ambassador Harry Thomas supporting a typically Obama brand of liberalism can cure this. The government has this irritating knee jerk reaction to look for US assistance (most recently in the Spratly spat over Chinese intrusions to Philippine territory). The recent John Sayles directed film  "Amigo"  about a fictional Philippine village caught between a faltering guerrilla war of the Philippine Republic and the strengthening of American occupation and the introduction of US civil institutions by force of  arms is an interesting take on a subject present Filipinos were hardly taught about.

Capitan del Barrio Rafael Dacanay (excellently played by Joel Torre) was put in an unenviable position of upholding the sovereignty of the Philippine Republic (even if this meant discarding due process) and later on collaborating with American military government policy (even if this meant acceding to human rights violations). Torre excellently essays the character of Dacanay. In any society occupied by superior arms the head of the community faces this quandary. In films about the Holocaust such as Spielberg's "Schindler's List" and Jon Avnet's "Uprising" this is excellently portrayed in the character of the head of the Jewish Council. The head of the community eventually ends up dead and friendless, forgotten in infamy.

The characters of the US soldiers in "Amigo" are a refreshing departure from similar depictions in similar films. The America that came out of the Civil War is essayed in the characters of the men. From the WASPy architect turned Lieutenant Compton (Garret Dillahunt) who is torn between his belief on American liberal principles and the necessity of imposing martial law as directed by Col. Hardache ( well played by Hollywood veteran Chris Cooper) to the characters of the privates, sergeants and corporals like Gil (Dane de Haan), Shanker (Lucas Neff) and Sgt Runnels (James Parks). The privates and NCOs are also torn between this American imperialist adventure and the moral chiasma it opened. The American soldiers are your usual "nice boys" corrupted by this unjust and dirty war. The essaying of soldiers characters as someone who can show empathy and even fall in love with "the brown monkeys" is I think is for the American viewers. All the Pinoys in the theatre cannot help but chuckle at this whole shenanigan!  Sayles had the characters essayed as Southerners and having done a post doc in the American South, I do know that the Civil War is not a dead issue among Southerners. It is still hotly debated and the issue of slavery still being discussed.

But the American soldiers had to bow down to civil authority and towards the end of the movie civil government was established (with the first barrio election which Dacanay won). But Spanish Friar Hidalgo ( quite hilariously played with a dash of gravitas by Yul Vazquez) tells the Americans about the contradiction between the kind of democracy they wanted to impose and the kind of society the Filipinos had. This is at the root of the tragedy of America's experiment to create the Filipinos (and the Chamorros, the Puerto Ricans, Samoans etc) "in their own image"  which was obviously a flop. The Puerto Ricans even if US Citizens by statute know truly this even if they enjoy Uncle Sam's benevolent protection and as a compromise, maintain their Commowealth status. But the "Ricans" still are discriminated on the mainland even if they need no US visas to enter there. Also they are very aware that Congress can strip their US Citizenship by statute also.

Of course the portrayal of small town Filipino society is very interesting to watch especially for the 21st century urbanized Pinoy. Much of what was depicted are now long gone in our rural barrios which are themselves being rapidly urbanized. The procession in honour of San Isidro has been long replaced by more secular events like Ms Gay Barangay! But American occupation also did not change the political dynamic but only changed the characters. If WASPy Lt Compton in his Protestant work ethic idealism forced Dacanay to till his own plot of paddy, this was for naught since the Americans did not really redistributed land. They just did transfer these to a rising collaborationist elite essayed in the movie by John Arcilla as Nenong. (Warning spoiler ahead!) Nenong was then appointed Cabeza after Dacanay was hanged for aiding the "bandits".

A Philippine Collegian staffer reviewed the movie but fails to see the underlying theme of this political dynamic as a result of American occupation and imperialism. This weakens her analysis leaving it like any of the analysis the usual lefty characters in UP regularly dish out. A dose of more reading up on history and reading fiction should be the remedy.

"Amigo" leaves the viewer to conclude if the Revolution flopped or not. I believed it was paused and it is up to the present generation of Filipinos to continue it. It will eventually succeed and when it does  Noynoy and Kris should be tilling Luisita by the sweat of their brows like Dacanay and not bore us with their present or nonexistent love lives. Or better yet redistribute Luisita to the farmers that till it. Noynoy or Kris can be Revolutionary too but I don't bet on that at all!

Until then the tragedy continues. The elite continue to benefit from collaboration and the people remain poor and happy with 30 Mexican pesos! The friends of the Philippine nation are none but the Filipino people alone.

One viewer wanted to know what happened to Joaquinito, Dacanay's son. Perhaps he was elected to the American sponsored Philippine Assembly!

John Sayles deserves laud for tackling a subject with the requisite balance!

"Amigo" directed by John Sayles, starring Joel Torre, Pen Medina, Rio Locsin, Yul Vazquez and Chris Cooper opened on 6 July 2011 (Philippines) will open on 20 August 2011 (USA)

No comments: