The reviews are in: Heneral Luna is a great film, everybody should watch it, it will satisfy students, teachers, history enthusiasts, fans of Philippine film, fans of film in general, everyone. I’m not sure if, at the beginning, it was off to a promising start. Before the film’s opening I had asked my students to see the film as a bonus activity. There was some confusion as to who exactly was Antonio Luna. Some mistook him for his painter brother Juan, most were familiar with just his name, but not what he did or his role in the Philippine Revolution and the Philippine-American War.
This is certainly symptomatic of how we look at history and how it is taught: as merely a litany of names, dates, and places to be memorized. And because there is very little time allotted to the study of Philippine history, it can end up being hurriedly taught and simplified to the point of caricature – the colonizers are the bad guys, and the Filipinos are the good guys. Thus, the name “Antonio Luna” can easily be recalled, and that he was one of the good guys, but very little else.
Of late, many historians and history enthusiasts have responded to this by trying to show the more “human side” of our heroes, their inner conflicts and contradictions, what they liked to eat for breakfast or intrigues about their love lives. The film, through the creativity afforded by the medium, also sought to do this, modifying the language to suit a younger audience and injecting humor and romance into what was a very dark episode in our history.
What these approaches seek to do is to “de-fossilize” our heroes, to pull them down from their rebulto pedestals and to depict them as imperfect humans struggling in an imperfect world. I, for one, think this an admirable initial step, though this may fall into the relativistic trap of merely being “understanding” of past actions, and therefore “forgiving” of their outcomes.
Teachers, and students, must not be afraid to confront history first in all its complexity – the contradictions, the shady motivations, the personal agonies, the disasters and consequences – and they must likewise not be afraid of making the judgment calls that are necessary if we are to glean useful lessons we can use for the present. (On practical matters, this should rebuke the current trend of confining history education only at the early grades, such as what we have with K to 12. What this should encourage instead is even more history subjects all the way into college, when students are more mature to handle complex historical narratives and all the gray areas in between.)
To ask these hard questions and to provoke discussion was indeed the objective of the film’s director, Jerrold Tarog, and it is heartening to see that it is so far effective. We see this in the many commentaries and online discussions that have sprouted since the film’s release, out of all of which I wish to focus on two.
The first stems from observing the commonalities between Antonio Luna and Andres Bonifacio. Both were militant leaders unafraid to take up arms to attain independence, and both met their deaths, tragically, in the hands of their fellow Filipinos. Curiously, many historical textbooks carry subjective descriptions of both leaders as being ill-tempered, or hot-headed, or quarrelsome. Some references go so far as to say that this quality of theirs may have led directly to their murders, in a bizarre combination of victim-blaming and regret that if only they had been a bit more moderate (just like everyone else) they might have lived longer.
This interpretation will certainly resonate in a society where the Christian value of temperance and the Filipino value of pakikisama are held in high esteem. Back then it was manifested in the piles of doubt that both leaders faced coming from reluctant allies and cowardly fence-sitters: there weren’t enough men, enough arms, enough preparation for the revolution, so why fight when we can try to make friends? It was the assertion of the radical line – independence through armed struggle – that set both men apart, and as history played out it was this daring that proved them correct: reforms from Spain were never forthcoming in Bonifacio’s time, and the Americans were out to directly take over us after all in Luna’s.
We want to hold in high regard these qualities that defined Bonifacio and Luna; students still repeat the line that what made them heroic was that they were willing to fight for and die for what they believed was right. But this message has considerably been watered down in the century since with the ascendance of moderation and compromise as the rule in every matter of engagement.
While we are not saying that dialogue and negotiation do not play important roles at different levels of struggle, its dominance obfuscates the viability of radical options in social transformation, as well as the possibility that there are conflicts that need to be fought out after all.
For example, I have heard the argument before that violence is justified only against foreign oppressors, but no longer now that we are under no direct colonizers. And this is where the second important lesson of the film comes in.
I think that one of the reasons why Heneral Luna is as talked about and as affecting as it has become is because majority of Filipinos are not fully apprised about how Luna met his end. The film makes it abundantly clear that fellow Filipinos conspired against him, and not just any Filipinos, but those who were able to find (worm/claw/opportune) their way to high positions in the fledgling Philippine Republic, with the proverbial buck stopping all the way at the top with the first president, Emilio Aguinaldo.
Our first republic was, quite simply, riddled with traitors and opportunists, and was headed by a man who was, at best, vacillating and easily manipulated, and at worst, an active party to moves that served to undermine the country and government he was supposed to protect. It must be emphasized that the nature of this traitorousness is not unfathomable, but was discernably driven by personal, and ultimately, elite, interests. Pedro Paterno and Felipe Buencamino both had track records of jumping from one side of the fence to the other (and back again!) when it was in their interest to do so. They both jockeyed for positions in the last stretch of Spanish rule and into the beginning of American occupation. Aguinaldo, among other things, was known to promise his loyal men of being granted haciendas at the end of the war, clearly catching for himself the Spanish prerogative of amassing resources and becoming wealthy at the expense of others.
Some may point out that Luna was elite as well. Indeed, he studied in Europe, and initially would have nothing to do with the Philippine Revolution. And he was not immune from such trappings like designer uniforms. But, because he held his principles above all else, he had the clarity of vision and analysis to see the traitors in his midst and the true master that they served.
Bayan o sarili? The line Luna drew remains as valid as ever. Then and now, this is a republic of traitors that serve the narrowest of interests, in the guise of preserving decorum and tranquility. They are those who continue to extol business as the only true form of progress while keeping wages at mere survival levels. They are those who swoon at international engagements as they themselves remain foreign to the plight of majority of their countrymen. They are those who profess refinement and mild manners, while wielding the mightiest force of arms of all in the land.
Luna’s daring, his audacity to make us choose between country and self, and the clarity of vision and analysis that this simple formulation has provided him, are what we need to turn this republic of traitors into a nation of heroes.