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‘Aswang’ Documentary Review: Do Not Dare Look Away

By L.S. Mendizabal

(Trigger warning: Murders, mutilation of corpses)

Pumarito ka. Bahala ka, kukunin ka ng aswang diyan! (Come here, or else the aswang will get you!)” is a threat often directed at Filipino children by their mothers. In fact, you can’t be Filipino without having heard it at least once in your life. For as early as in childhood, we are taught to fear creatures we’ve only seen in nightmares triggered by bedtime stories told by our Lolas.

In Philippine folklore, an “aswang” is a shape-shifting monster that roams in the night to prey on people or animals for survival. They may take a human form during the day. The concept of “monster” was first introduced to us in the 16th century by the Spanish to demonize animist shamans, known as “babaylan” and “asog,” in order to persuade Filipino natives to abandon their “anitos” (nature, ancestor spirits) and convert to Roman Catholicism—a colonizing tactic that proved to be effective from Luzon to Northern Mindanao.

In the early 1950s, seeing that Filipinos continued to be superstitious, the Central Intelligence Agency weaponized folklore against the Hukbong Bayan Laban sa Hapon (Hukbalahap), an army of mostly local peasants who opposed US intervention in the country following our victory over the Japanese in World War II. The CIA trained the Philippine Army to butcher and puncture holes in the dead bodies of kidnapped Huk fighters to make them look like they were bitten and killed by an aswang. They would then pile these carcasses on the roadside where the townspeople could see them, spreading fear and terror in the countryside. Soon enough, people stopped sympathizing with and giving support to the Huks, frightened that the aswang might get them, too.

Fast forward to a post-Duterte Philippines wherein the sight of splayed corpses has become as common as of the huddled living bodies of beggars in the streets. Under the harsh, flickering streetlights, it’s difficult to tell the dead and the living apart. This is one of many disturbing images you may encounter in Alyx Ayn Arumpac’s Aswang. The documentary, which premiered online and streamed for free for a limited period last weekend, chronicles the first two years of President Rodrigo Duterte’s campaign on illegal drugs. “Oplan Tokhang” authorized the Philippine National Police to conduct a door-to-door manhunt of drug dealers and/or users. According to human rights groups, Tokhang has killed an estimated 30,000 Filipinos, most of whom were suspected small-time drug offenders without any actual charges filed against them. A pattern emerged of eerily identical police reports across cases: They were killed in a “neutralization” because they fought back (“nanlaban”) with a gun, which was the same rusty .38 caliber pistol repeatedly found along with packets of methamphetamine (“shabu”) near the bloodied corpses. When children and innocent people died during operations, PNP would call them “collateral damage.” Encouraged by Duterte himself, there were also vigilante killings too many to count. Some were gunned down by unidentified riding-in-tandem suspects, while some ended up as dead bodies wrapped in duct tape, maimed or accessorized with a piece of cardboard bearing the words, “Pusher ako, huwag tularan” (I’m a drug pusher, do not emulate). Almost all the dead casualties shared one thing in common: they were poor. Virtually no large-scale drug lord suffered the same fate they did.

And for a while, it was somehow tempting to call it “fate.” Filipinos were being desensitized to the sheer number of drug-related extrajudicial killings (a thousand a month, according to the film). “Nanlaban” jokes and memes circulated on Facebook and news of slain Tokhang victims were no longer news as their names and faces were reduced to figures in a death toll that saw no end.

As much as Aswang captures the real horrors and gore of the drug war, so has it shown effectively the abnormal “sense of normal” in the slums of Manila as residents deal with Tokhang on the daily. Fearing for their lives has become part of their routine along with making sure they have something to eat or slippers on their feet. This biting everyday reality is highlighted by Arumpac’s storytelling unlike that of any documentary I’ve ever seen. Outlined by poetic narration with an ominous tone that sounds like a legitimately hair-raising ghost story, Aswang transports the audience, whether they like it or not, from previously seeing Tokhang exclusively on the news to the actual scenes of the crime and funerals through the eyes of four main individuals: a nightcrawler photojournalist and dear family friend, Ciriaco Santiago III (“Brother Jun” to many), a funeral parlor operator, a street kid and an unnamed woman.

Along with other nightcrawlers, Bro. Jun waits for calls or texts alerting them of Tokhang killings all over Manila’s nooks and crannies. What sets him apart from the others, perhaps motivated by his mission as Redemptorist Brother, is that he speaks to the families of the murdered victims to not only obtain information but to comfort them. In fact, Bro. Jun rarely speaks throughout the film. Most of the time, he’s just listening, his brows furrowed with visible concern and empathy. It’s as if the bereaved are confessing to him not their own transgressions but those committed against them by the state. One particular scene that really struck me is when he consoles a middle-aged man whose brother was just killed not far from his house. “Kay Duterte ako pero mali ang ginawa nila sa kapatid ko” (I am for Duterte but what they did to my brother was wrong), he says to Bro. Jun in between sobs. Meanwhile, a mother tells the story of how her teenage son went out with friends and never came home. His corpse later surfaced in a mortuary. “Just because Duterte gave [cops] the right to kill, some of them take advantage because they know there won’t be consequences,” she angrily says in Filipino before wailing in pain while showing Bro. Jun photos of her son smiling in selfies and then laying pale and lifeless at the morgue.

The Eusebio Funeral Services is a setting in the film that becomes as familiar as the blood-soaked alleys of the city. Its operator is an old man who gives the impression of being seasoned in his profession. And yet, nothing has prepared him for the burden of accommodating at least five cadavers every night when he was used to only one to two a week. When asked where all the unclaimed bodies go, he casually answers, “mass burial.” We later find out at the local cemetery that “mass burial” is the stacking of corpses in tiny niches they designated for the nameless and kinless. Children pause in their games as they look on at this crude interment, after which a man seals the niche with hollow blocks and wet cement, ready to be smashed open again for the next occupant/s. At night, the same cemetery transforms into a shelter for the homeless whose blanketed bodies resemble those covered in cloth at Eusebio Funeral Services.

Tama na po, may exam pa ako bukas” (Please stop, I still have an exam tomorrow). 17-year-old high school student, Kian Delo Santos, pleaded for his life with these words before police shot him dead in a dark alley near his home. The documentary takes us to this very alley without the foreknowledge that the corpse we see on the screen is in fact Kian’s. At his wake, we meet Jomari, a little boy who looks not older than seven but talks like a grown man. He fondly recalls Kian as a kind friend, short of saying that there was no way he could’ve been involved in drugs. Jomari should know, his parents are both in jail for using and peddling drugs. At a very young age, he knows that the cops are the enemy and that he must run at the first sign of them. Coupled with this wisdom and prematurely heightened sense of self-preservation is Jomari’s innocence, glimpses of which we see when he’s thrilled to try on new clothes and when he plays with his friends. Children in the slums are innocent but not naïve. They play with wild abandon but their exchanges are riddled with expletives, drugs and violence. They even reenact a Tokhang scene where the cops beat up and shoot a victim.

Towards the end of the film, a woman whose face is hidden and identity kept private gives a brief interview where, like the children drawing monsters only they could see in horror movies, she sketches a prison cell she was held in behind a bookshelf. Her interview alternates with shots of the actual secret jail that was uncovered by the press in a police station in Tondo in 2017. “Naghuhugas lang po ako ng pinggan n’ung kinuha nila ‘ko!” (I was just washing the dishes when they took me!), screams one woman the very second the bookshelf is slid open like a door. Camera lights reveal the hidden cell to be no wider than a corridor with no window, light or ventilation. More than ten people are inside. They later tell the media that they were abducted and have been detained for a week without cases filed against them, let alone a police blotter. They slept in their own shit and urine, were tortured and electrocuted by the cops, and told that they’d only be released if they paid the PNP money ranging from 10 000 to 100 000 pesos. Instead of being freed that day, their papers are processed for their transfer to different jails.

Aswang is almost surreal in its depiction of social realities. It is spellbinding yet deeply disturbing in both content and form. Its extremely violent visuals and hopelessly bleak scenes are eclipsed by its more delicate moments: Bro. Jun praying quietly by his lonesome after a night of pursuing trails of blood, Jomari clapping his hands in joyful glee as he becomes the owner of a new pair of slippers, an old woman playing with her pet dog in an urban poor community, a huge rally where protesters demand justice for all the victims of EJKs and human rights violations, meaning that they were not forgotten. It’s also interesting to note that while the film covers events in a span of two years, the recounting of these incidents is not chronological as seen in Bro. Jun’s changing haircuts and in Jomari’s unchanging outfit from when he gets new slippers to when he’s found after months of going missing. Without naming people, places and even dates, with Arumpacletting the poor do most of the heavy lifting bysimply telling their stories on state terrorism and impunity in their own language, Aswang succeeds in demonstrating how Duterte’s war on drugs is, in reality, a genocide of the poor, elevating the film beyond numb reportage meant to merely inform the public to being a testament to the people’s struggle. The scattered sequence, riveting images, sinister music and writing that borrows elements from folklore and the horror genre make Aswang feel more like a dream than a documentary—a nightmare, to be precise. And then, a rude awakening. The film compels us to replay and review Oplan Tokhang by bringing the audience to a place of such intimate and troubling closeness with the dead and the living they had left behind.

Its unfiltered rawness makes Aswang a challenging yet crucial watch. Blogger and company CEO, Cecile Zamora, wrote on her Instagram stories that she only checked Aswang out since it was trending but that she gave up 23 minutes in because it depressed her, declaring the documentary “not worth her mental health” and discouraging her 52,000 followers from watching it, too. Naturally, her tone-deaf statements went viral on Twitter and in response to the backlash, she posted a photo of a Tokhang victim’s family with a caption that said she bought them a meal and gave them money as if this should exempt her from criticism and earn her an ally cookie, instead.

 Aswang is definitely not a film about privileged Filipinos like Zamora—who owns designer handbags and lives in a luxurious Ed Calma home—but this doesn’t make the documentary any less relevant or necessary for them to watch. Zamora missed the point entirely: Aswang is supposed to make her and the rest of us feel upset! It nails the purpose of art in comforting the disturbed and disturbing the comfortable. It establishes that the only aswang that exists is not a precolonial shaman or a shape-shifting monster, but fear itself—the fear that dwells within us that is currently aggravated and used by a fascist state to force us into quiet submission and apathy towards the most marginalized sectors of society.

Before the credits roll, the film verbalizes its call to action in the midst of the ongoing slaughter of the poor and psychological warfare by the Duterte regime:

“Kapag sinabi nilang may aswang, ang gusto talaga nilang sabihin ay, ‘Matakot ka.’ Itong lungsod na napiling tambakan ng katawan ay lalamunin ka, tulad ng kung paano nilalamon ng takot ang tatag. Pero meron pa ring hindi natatakot at nagagawang harapin ang halimaw. Dito nagsisimula.” (When they say there’s a monster, what they really want to say is “be afraid.” This city, chosen to be the dumpsite of the dead, will devour you as fear devours courage. But there are still those who are not afraid and are able to look the monster in the eye. This is where it begins).

During these times, when an unjust congressional vote recently shut down arguably the country’s largest multimedia network in an effort to stifle press freedom and when the Anti-Terrorism Law is now in effect, Aswang should be made more accessible to the masses because it truly is a must-see for every Filipino, and by “must-see,” I mean, “Don’t you dare look away.” #

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References:

Buan, L. (2020). “UN Report: Documents suggest PH Police Planted Guns in Drug War Ops”. Rappler. Retrieved from https://rappler.com/nation/united-nations-report-documents-suggest-philippine-police-planted-guns-drug-war-operations

Ichimura, A., & Severino, A. (2019). “How the CIA Used the Aswang to Win a War in the Philippines”. Esquire. Retrieved from https://www.esquiremag.ph/long-reads/features/cia-aswang-war-a00304-a2416-20191019-lfrm

Lim, B. C. (2015). “Queer Aswang Transmedia: Folklore as Camp”. Kritika Kultura, 24. Retrieved from https://escholarship.org/uc/item/3mj1k076

Tan, L. (2017). “Duterte Encourages Vigilante Killings, Tolerates Police Modus – Human Rights Watch”. CNN Philippines. Retrieved from https://cnnphilippines.com/news/2017/03/02/Duterte-PNP-war-on-drugs-Human-Rights-Watch.html

Where’s the Pacific voice in the viral ‘real Lord of the Flies’ story?

‘It lacked the very Tongans the story was about’

By Mong Palatino

A book excerpt published by The Guardian narrates the survival of six shipwrecked Tongan boys on an island for 15 months in 1965. The story received more than seven million hits in just four days, but some Tongans have pointed out that the story, which foregrounds the point of view of the Australian sailor who rescued the teenagers, lacks a Pacific voice.

The Guardian story, ‘The real Lord of the Flies: what happened when six boys were shipwrecked for 15 months,’ was published on May 9 and immediately went viral, attracting the attention of filmmakers and global leaders. The book from which it is excerpted is “Humankind: A Hopeful History,” by Dutch historian Rutger Bregman.

Bregman recounted how Tongan teenagers Sione, Stephen, Kolo, David, Luke and Mano survived on the depopulated Ata island for 15 months by relying on each other after their boat was destroyed by a storm. They were rescued by Australian sailor Peter Warner.

Bregman contrasted the story of the six Tongans with the tragic fate of the characters in the popular 1954 novel “Lord of the Flies” by British author William Golding. In the novel, the children survive a plane crash and end up on a remote Pacific island. Some of them become violent, with fatal consequences.

For Bregman, the story of the six Tongans offers a more positive view of humanity:

It’s time we told a different kind of story. The real Lord of the Flies is a tale of friendship and loyalty; one that illustrates how much stronger we are if we can lean on each other.

The Guardian story was picked up by the local press in Tonga. Through the Matangi Tonga Online, we learned that the full names of the six teenagers are Kolo Fekitoa, Sione Fataua, “David” Tevita Siola’a, “Stephen” Fatai Latu, Mano Totau, and Luke Veikoso.

Not all are happy with the story published by The Guardian. In an ABC Australia audio interview Meleika Gesa-Fatafehi, a Tongan author and storyteller, took issue with the story’s “colonial lens”. She felt there was too much focus on the Australian rescuer while omitting reference to the island’s history of colonialism (which is why it was depopulated), and the local belief systems that could explain why the boys behaved the way they did. She expressed frustration that a foreigner owns the rights to the story about what happened to the six teenagers, which is well-known in the Tongan community.

Gesa-Fatafehi added that understanding Tongan history and the values promoted in the community would have made readers see that the western novel Lord of the Flies provided an inaccurate counterpoint to the story of the six teenagers.

In a widely-shared Twitter thread, Gesa-Fatafehi elaborated her other concerns:

Samoan journalist Tahlea Aualiitia also commented:

On Twitter, Janet. U revealed that her grandfather is one of the six castaways and posted the following appeal to the public:

Bregman responded to the Twitter thread of Meleika Gesa-Fatafehi by pointing out that the Guardian excerpt did not include his interview with Mano and Sione.

He said he also tackled the history of slavery on the island.

On May 13, The Guardian published an interview with Mano. The article quoted Mano and Bregman, who clarified that Warner did not benefit financially from the story of the rescue.

Gesa-Fatafehi posted a rejoinder to Bregman’s point that the story is not about racism or colonialism but resilience and interracial friendship:

She wrote a longer piece summarizing the points she raised on her Twitter thread:

The original article could’ve done more for the six men. The story should have been told by a Tongan. The story should have been told by the men themselves and their families. This is their story, will always be their story. The article doesn’t mention how the boys felt or why they made the choices they made. It lacked their perspective. It lacked the very Tongans the story was about, with the exception of Mano. But even then, Mano was sidelined. He deserves to share his story how he would want to.

Gesa-Fatafehi said in the ABC Australia interview that if ever a film were to be made about the six teenagers, her advice is to hire a local crew and incorporate local perspectives in sharing the story to the world. #

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This article first appeared on Global Voices which Kodao republishes as part of a content-sharing agreement.

Activist grandson on Malvar biopic: Why focus on Pacquaio and not on general’s fight against US imperialism?

An activist grandson of General Miguel Malvar said ongoing debates on the upcoming biopic should focus more on the hero’s fight against United States imperialism and less on who was chosen to play the film’s lead role.

Reacting to widespread opposition to the producer’s choice of Senator Emmanuel Pacquiao to play the lead role in the movie “Malvar”, retired University of the Philippines and De La Salle University professor and Marcos martial law torture victim Edberto Malvar Villegas said the film’s depiction of the US’ crimes against the Filipino people that should be the most important consideration in appreciating the film.

“If Pacquiao has other political purpose in agreeing to play the role of Malvar, that pales before the fact that this movie will bring into full light the grievous genocidal crimes of the US against another people,” Edberto said in his Facebook post Monday.

“For, eventually, all past crimes will be revealed before the unflinching gaze of history and the telling of the tragic fate of the Filipino people in general and Kumandante Heneral Malvar in particular during the Fil[ipino]-American war cannot be prevented even by his own relatives,” he explained.

Edberto disagreed with his nephew and the general’s namesake Miguel Malvar who publicly slammed the film project saying, “Apparently, a relative had unilaterally decided that he would enter into an agreement with outside parties to produce the Malvar film without the express consent of the entire clan.”

The younger Malvar’s comment further fueled a flood of negative reactions that generally criticized the producer’s decision to cast Pacquiao to play the hero. Although he has previously acted in several films in the past, those opposed to the project pointed out that the senator is not an actor.

Edberto agreed with his brother, the film’s producer Jose Malvar Villegas, that it is not necessary to solicit the entire clan’s permission for the film to be produced.

“For no one owns the life of the Kumandante-Heneral because history has already claimed him as one of its beloved sons.”

General Malvar is acclaimed in Philippine history to be the last general who fought against the US invasion of the Philippines.

Edberto revealed in his post that the late general suffered even after the Filipino-American War.

HTTPS://WWW.FACEBOOK.COM/GENERALMALVARMOVIE

US imperialism’s crimes against Filipinos

Edberto, Malvar’s grandson by his youngest daughter Isabel, revealed that the US colonial government in the Philippines tried to bribe Malvar by offering him the governorship of the province of Batangas and the command of the then Philippine Constabulary, precursor of the Philippine National Police whose chief has recently stepped down due to public revelations of corruption.

Edberto said Malvar refused because he hated the invaders, particularly their burning of villages and torture of prisoners.

For this, the American colonial government seized 700 hectares of his property at the foot of Mt. Makiling in Laguna province that eventually became part of the UP’s Los Baños sprawling campus.

The Malvar clan tried to reclaim the property but was denied by the colonial Supreme Court in the 1930s.

Edberto said Malvar’s last words to his children were to never allow the Filipinos to forget the revolutionaries’ fight against the US imperialists.

“Huwag kakalimutan ng sambayanang Pilipino ang pakikipaglaban ng mga unang rebolusyonaryo natin sa mga dayuhan, partikular sa malupit na imperyalismo E.U. na sa pananakop nito sa Pilipinas ay nagkaroon ng 1.5 milyun katao napatay, karamihan mga sibilyan dahil sa pamamaraan ng pangegera ng mga Kano, kahit ng hanggang ngayon,” Malvar reportedly told them.

(Let not the Filipino people forget the first revolutionaries’ struggle against the invaders, especially the cruel US who killed 1.5 million, mostly civilians, because of how they wage war until now.)

After the general’s death, however, the US colonial government tried to bribe his sons with state-side scholarships and largesse.

Yun[g] namatay ang lolo ko, agad binigyan ng E.U. ang lahat ng mga tiyo ko ng mga schlolarship sa E.U. sa University of Yale, University of Princeton, atbp, at inaapoint ang ilang tiyo ko bilang mga konsul sa embahada ng E.U.. Nang di nila makuha ang isip ng lolo ko maging maka-Kano at huwag magreklamo sa pananakop ng bayang ito, ang pinuntriya ay mga anak niya,” Edberto wrote.

“Kaya, kung may masasabi tayo na maigting edukasyon kolonialismo sa isang angkan, ang nangunguna dito ay angkan Malvar,” he revealed.

(When my grandfather died, the US immediately gave his sons scholarships to Yale, Princeton and others and appointed some of my uncles as consuls in US embassies. When they failed to turn my grandfather and become their stooge, they worked on his sons.

So, if any clan is to be accused of being victims of colonialist brainwashing, the Malvar clan would be among the first.)

The Malvar clan was even given an award as an American Family during the bicentennial of the US revolution, he added.

As a result, majority of Malvar’s descendants, especially those from the male line, were rabidly pro-US, Edberto revealed, adding that descendants from the hero’s daughters are not as rabid as they did not benefit from the bribes.

“Alam ninyo, kapag nagsasalita mismo ako sa mga anibersaryo ng kapanganakan ng lolo ko tuwing Sept. 27 ang ilang kamaganak ko pa ang tumututol kung sinasariwa ko ang pakikipaglaban ng lolo ko sa mga Kano noong panahon ng digmaan Filipino-Amerikano,” he explained.

(You know, when I speak during anniversary commemorations every September 27, some relatives even object to my reminiscing our grandfather’s fight against the Americans.)

Huwag kayo magtaka kung sa loob mismo ng angkan Malvar may pumupuna sa darating na sine ni Malvar, lalo na yun mga nakatira sa US na mahabang panahon. Grace of the US embassy at yun mga nagtratrabaho sa US establishment,” Edberto said.

(Do not be surprised if within the Malvar clan, there are those who are against the film, especially those who have lived in the US for the longest time. They are benefactors of the US Embassy and those who worked in the US establishment.)

Edberto said it was his brother Jose who approached Pacquiao to help in the production of the film after several unsuccessful attempts to solicit support from businesspersons, including those who have been producing historical biopics, such as the prominent and rich Ortigas clan.

He added that Pacquiao did not bankroll the film but asked his friends to contribute a total of P100 million.

“Sabi ng brod ko patak-patak dumarating ang pera pero aabot sa P100M, ang minimum kapital para magawa ang sine,” he said.

(My brother said the money came in trickles but it has reached P100 million, the minimum capital to produce the film.)

Edberto said that the contributors were local national bourgeoisie who hate the US but do not want to be identified because of partnerships with US businesses.

The huge budget would be spent mostly on filming the trench warfare scenes, Edberto said.

He however revealed that Pacquiao wanted to play the role of Malvar.

Edberto said he edited the movie script. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

On the Disinformation and Harassment Against ‘Tu Pug Imatuy’

By the Concerned Artists of the Philippines

We condemn the uploading of black propaganda against the film Tu Pug Imatuy (2017), directed by Arnel Barbarona who is a member of the Concerned Artists of the Philippines.

Set in Mindanao, Tu Pug Imatuy (The Right to Kill) revolves around the story of Manobo couple caught amidst anti-insurgency operations by the Philippine military in a community targetted for mining operations, inspired by a lumad’s actual account of similar events in the region. A notable work of independent, regional, and progressive cinema, the acclaimed film recently completed a series of screenings since its premiere and successive wins at the Sinag Maynila 2017 Film Festival, the Gawad Urian, and the Famas awards.

On September 21, an anonymously-produced video was uploaded and shared via Facebook. It branded Tu Puy Imatuy as a “deceptive indie film” full of untruths and with ties to the CPP-NDF-NPA. The video used film clips, obviously without permission from the filmmaker. It was flagged but continues to be uploaded across other fake news sites. Barbarona also noted a recent incident that points to the possibility of him being surveilled.

The release of such black propaganda is an assault on freedom of expression and the freedom of the artist to critique, reflect or respond to social realities. This sends the message that artistic and creative works that contradict the narrative of the Duterte administration can and will be attacked with impunity.

These acts of vilification on social media happen at a time when alarmist spectres are peddled to discredit criticism of the current economic crisis and political repression in the Philippines. These are no different from the Palace’s and the military’s singling out of critics or advocates from other sectors as “terrorists” and targets for harassment or worse. The Presidential Communications Operations Office, through Assistant Secretary Mocha Uson, promotes the spread of dangerous disinformation. For, for instance, it interviewed supposed lumad leaders who want the peace talks scrapped and condemn alleged CPP-NPA killings of “legitimate” leaders—claims that are strongly contested by people’s organizations on the ground.

These cases of red baiting and surveillance are a dangerous throwback to the repression and proliferation of lies, rife during the Marcos dictatorship. Let us not not wait for these to escalate into full-blown harassment of artists and cultural workers or for such black propaganda to become normalized. We call upon our colleagues in the film industry to speak up against the incident and the wider phenomenon of McCarthyist red-baiting of dissent.

Stop the attacks on artists and cultural workers.
Stop the attacks on lumad and indigenous peoples communities.
Stop the attacks on the Filipino people.

GOYO: A review

By John L. Silva

The cineaste in me had some trepidation viewing Goyo, the nickname for General Gregorio del Pilar, coming on the heels of the box office hit Luna, that irascible General Antonio Luna who, like del Pilar, fought under President Emilio Aguinaldo (played by Mon Confiado) in the Filipino-American War.

Would a successful film dilute the creative juices of Jerrold Tarog for this next film, about a 23-year old “boy general” who takes up the cudgel of fighting for the newly formed Philippine republic after Luna’s untimely demise? Would more access now to funding complicate the script, be more nuanced, erratic and become an ego stroke for the director and producers?

Well, as I return from the movie premier, with a notebook full of scribbles, I confess to be quite taken by the depth of this cinematic experience. Goyo is a study in historical profundity, in dialogue bordering on poetry, in the cinematography of verdant mountains that chokes the heart, and in actors that have managed to approximate the heroes and villains we study and revere. In effect, director Tarog, the producers, the cast, and the crew outdid themselves.

The movies cuts to the chase at the very beginning. Luna has just been butchered by Aguinaldo’s soldiers, interesting in that this movie lays Luna’s death directly on Aguinaldo’s lap, the last one having pussyfooted on the issue. There’s a massive roundup of soldiers under Luna’s command including a high ranking officer, Col. Manuel Bernal (Art Acuna) who refuses to change his allegiance. For that he is tortured under the unfeeling eyes of Gen. del Pilar (Paulo Avelino) but still manages to throw insults at del Pilar, accusing him of following whatever Aguinaldo commands. He yells hauntingly at del Pilar, that he is, in effect, “not a soldier but a dog.” As del Pilar leaves the cell, the bloodied Bernal, at the point of snapping, yaps like a loyal dog with a humiliating bark which would stick with him, and haunt him.

In 1899, Less than six months after the start of the war, Aguinaldo’s forces suffer setbacks and flee to the north, to Dagupan in Pangasinan. They are there for five months providing respite and developing a more developed profile of del Pilar who it turns out is a sly flirt and a ladies’ man having broken many hearts in the towns they retreated to, as evidenced in the many pained letters from the ladies found in his sling bag.

Del Pilar as national lothario makes his real life boy-next-door image a lot sexier with the local lasses in their voluminous trailing ternos, fanning nervously, in near faint, with very apparent repressed desires. Casual sex hadn’t been introduced in those days.

There is one young lady that takes del Pilar’s fancy and probably every other gender and gender variation in the audience. She’s Remedios Jose (Gwen Zamora), the daughter of the town’s politico, and their first encounter is a study in 19th century Victorian encounter. As was the manner in those days, she communicates with her eyes, aptly described in 19th century literature as “Mapungay na mata” (dreamy, tender, liquid eyes).

With slight stifled breaths they are disarmed with one another but must keep a pretense, a nonchalance. Later, over dinner, he breaks the staring across the table and apologizes for the rude behavior displayed earlier. She politely says, to paraphrase, that she can handle any situation. Her father cheerily chimes in about having a strong daughter and this is Goyo first warning. She’s gorgeous but there’s going to be some serious hoops before she is “conquered.” Goyo, probably used to fainting violets had met his imperturbable match.

Months into the courtship, Remedios does not let up. In her self possessed way, she probes his past and wonders whether she’ll be conquest number 101. In a romantic and sensual court dance in the family house, as they slowly sway, hold hands, uncouple, approach, take in each other’s cologne and sweat tinged with yearning, she continues with her sweet and earnest inquisition. She not only chides him for being a potential heartbreaker but may possess heroic delusions that will get in the way of her just wanting a man, for keeps, at her side.

Del Pilar pledges fealty while Remedios must now deal with one ex of his, Felicidad Aguinaldo (Empress Schuck) who, in a market scene with Remedios, does a tit-for-tat with sharpened verbal claws. Remedios notes that many of the over ripe mangoes may have to be disposed. Felicidad snidely suggests to Remedios she could be one of them warning her of Goyo’s record of dispensing many other “mangoes.”

Oooh, this scriptwriter has an ax to grind. But Remedios is unfazed. She responds gently back, eyebrows raised, how ever could Felicidad think such, since she’s not a mango. Touche! Three snaps.

Photo: General Gregorio del Pilar, from Our Islands And Their People, 1899. Ortigas Library Collection

With Goyo’s peccadillos revealed and accepted as the masculine norm, we return to the crucial Philippine American war.

Apolinario Mabini (Epi Quizon), prominent in Luna, continues his sphinx-like pronouncements of the state of the nation. He has left the Aguinaldo cabinet soon after Luna’s death and was also to the left of Aguinaldo’s growing pro-American cabal. He has some profound, hurting lines about his countrymen, apropos still to today’s current congress. He calls Aguinaldo’s people a bunch of clowns. And given the behavior of the populace, a propensity for a good time over serious affairs, Mabini declares not once but twice that we are deserving to be called children. It’s an “ouch” but an irrevocable one till, perhaps, we get our act together.

Mabini has grown since the last movie, only fitting since he was at the early stage of the Aguinaldo cabinet very confident of its independent direction. Now, it seems unlikely. When eventually, Aguinaldo pays him a call, goads him to return and offers him the position of chief justice, Mabini accepts with a heavy heart uttering his acceptance only for the country’s sake.

Meanwhile, Goyo has flashbacks of a bloodied Col. Bernal yapping and tormenting him, literally dying of laughter. One night, in a drunken stupor in the river he deludes himself with blood coming out of his mouth, thinking his life is over under water. We witness a premonition of his death and possibly, the failure of his allegiance to Aguinaldo.

These intermittent nightmares are exacerbated by news of the Americans in Manila playing hardball: they first push the Filipino soldiers further away from laying siege on the Spaniards in Manila. In a meeting between Aguinaldo’s emissary, General Alejandrino (Alvin Anson) and American Generals Elwell Otis (Edward Rocha) and Arthur MacArthur (Miguel Faustmann) the Americans have only the mindset that the Filipinos possess a rogue president thus insinuating its army illegitimate and the fledgling republic an illusory sham to be vanquished. Luna, sadly six feet under, seems to have been right not to trust the Americans at all.

The American forces head north to put to rout the remaining Filipino forces and capture Aguinaldo. It is a demoralizing spectacle, a long trail of soldiers and civilians, on foot, reaching towns friendly or otherwise, scrounging for food moving northward and arduously ascending the Cordillera Mountains.

The sacrifices and misery inflicted on citizens are visually articulated in this movie with extras in the hundreds if not thousands, multiplied ably by visual effects. As a photo-historian, I find several instances in the movie where the melding of a scene, replicating a pose, imprinted as a photograph quite moving. Gen. del Pilar poses with an air, leaning on his sword. In another, in full military regalia astride his favorite white horse and flanked by his men the moving act of the pose and later, stilled and embedded in an albumen print galvanizes in the viewers the authenticity of the Boy General. He is a real historical figure, the army commanded was real and their earnestness in the love for a country real as well.

In the mountains, Aguinaldo moves ahead to elude capture ordering Gen. del Pilar with 60 men to be the rear guard on a mountainous pass called Tirad. Despite the ideal vantage point, seeing where the enemy is, the Filipinos are outmanned and sharpshooters of the 33rd Volunteer Infantry manage to take deadly aim even from below, at the Filipinos up on the ridge.

This last of the fighting scene is excruciating and as every Filipino soldier falls dead, the enchanting Cordillera mountains undulate in gratitude and sadness. The sharpshooters reach the top and Gen del Pilar is the last to retreat and eventually shot, and his whole body stripped of his possession and clothing. The Americans recognized the young general’s bravery and scrambled for mementoes of him.

Aside from the exquisite needle-point handkerchief given to him by Remedios, stripped by the soldiers from his bag, there was his diary with a last entry the day before. There are several varying accounts of his entry but I rely on Marcial Lichauco’s American Conquest of The Philippines which cites the war correspondent Richard Henry Little’s transcript of Gen del Pilar’s diary.

It reads “The general (Aguinaldo) had given me the pick of the men that can be spared and ordered me to defend the pass. I realize what a terrible task is given to me. And yet I feel that this is the most glorious moment of my life. What I do is done for my beloved country. No sacrifice can be too great.”

This movie’s historical period has parallels with today’s troubling events. The American forces, the ascending imperial power then, went land-grabbing and eventually took over the land. Today’s new Chinese imperial power, is starting with some of our islands and we are in bated breath as to what’s next.

Unquestioning loyalties to strongmen like Aguinaldo resulted in numerous failures and even needless deaths. There seems to be a thread with that and today’s strongman Duterte.

Mabini has the most unkind cut of all, declaring us as unfit children not to be trusted. Are we still that today, Lacking a a mature political will and incapable of making our country liveable and fulfilling to all? I’m afraid it’s still a long way off.

The movie is powerful and blends the right amount of romance and levity in a serious historical narrative. It will require thinking caps for all who want to see the best of outcomes for our country. Goyo soberly points us in the right direction. #

The author is the executive director of the Ortigas Foundation Library.