Philippine leaders, then and now

I have not seen a Filipino film in ages. I am not a regular moviegoer but I usually avoid local films as they would invariably leave me with a gnawing sense of sadness that our film industry has not leveled up to global standards.

But this was before I saw Heneral Luna. The film evoked in me a profound sense of pride and ownership in its being Filipino—with all the trappings of excellence in a film.  Without question, it deserves to be nominated to the Oscars and seen by international audiences. More importantly, this bio-epic must be seen by every Filipino for the messages it delivers that are worth thinking about.

Heneral Luna is compelling, engaging, yet entertaining. It is compelling because the actors who played the protagonists and antagonists put their all to bring to life the characters they played. It is engaging because it is a mirror of what we now see in our leaders, those in the upper crust of society and in ourselves, even. Still, it entertains, as certain comic reliefs are woven in the otherwise serious storyline. Heneral Luna’s incisive analyses of the character flaws afflicting Filipinos ring true to this day. He said, more than foreign colonizers, we, Filipinos, are our own enemies. The Filipino, he said, will do anything for himself and his family, but not for his country. While being protective of one’s family and loved ones may be a virtue, it can be a destructive curse when it is given primacy over matters of national interest. Thus, the film showed how businessmen in the persons of Pedro Paterno and Felipe Buencamino influenced the then-president of the Republic, Emilio Aguinaldo, to consider compromising with the American colonizers instead of fighting for independence. They said that the revolution was bad for business and since we could not win the war against America, why should we resist being annexed to the US? 

Today, the wealthy continue to exert influence on our leaders, especially in terms of policy and legislation. Today, leaders both in government and the private sector still pander to what foreign powers desire we do. Only recently, for instance, it was revealed by witnesses that when the Special Action Forces set out to arrest two known terrorists in  Mamasapano, which included Marwan, American officials were supposedly on the ground directly involved in the operation.

What was painfully and shamefully true among the film’s messages was that then, as it is now, politicians, government officials and sectors with vested interests are prepared to destroy their own—their fellow Filipinos—for their self-preservation and the perpetration of their self-interest.  Luna, whom even the American colonizers described as a brave and extraordinary military general, was killed by his fellow Filipinos in a brutal and treacherous attack upon orders of someone in power. The film suggests that it was no less than then President Emilio Aguinaldo, himself, who ordered Luna’s murder in the same way he gave an order for the execution of Andres Bonifacio, a revolutionary hero.

Another character flaw of Filipinos depicted in the film, which lives to this day, is their being too self-absorbed, too onion-skinned and too proud to take a criticism. When they are directly criticized for a wrongdoing, no matter how true, they bear deep grudges against the critic and vow to get even. The film showed how this trait, called amor propio (self-love or pride in one’s self), nearly resulted in a gun battle between Filipino soldiers under the command of General Mascardo of Pampanga and those loyal to Antonio Luna, head of the Philippine Armed Forces, when General Mascardo refused to obey Luna’s order to go back to the battlefield which he left to attend some festivities in his hometown. The film also showed how the Caviteño soldiers who received a bashing and demotion by Luna when he caught them playing card games while other soldiers were dying in the field exploited Aguinaldo’s kinship with his fellow Caviteños by telling him that Luna had to be taught a lesson for insulting Caviteños.

The film also showed how conspiracies were hatched in high places to destroy the person who was the only hope in the war against the American colonizers. This is no less a reflection of how conspiracies are conceived today when those in power wish to bring down a perceived political enemy or a threat to their power. We, the general public do not see it and may not know how to second guess every action by those in power but if one were to observe more keenly, one will see that what our leaders practice today are the same, perhaps even worse, than what our leaders practiced many decades ago.

More films on Philippine history—in the caliber of Heneral Luna—must be shown. Filipinos, especially the young, must see Philippine history—unsanitized—for them to understand why we are where we are now. And, hopefully, be moved enough to want a change.


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