‘Bayan o sarili?’

“Bayan o sarili”—country or self?

This is perhaps the most disturbing question that indie historical-action biopic Heneral Luna poses to the viewer. It forces a setting aside of the complacency of daily life to make way for soul-searching and an internal debate on the definition, and acceptance, of an individual definition of ‘bayan’ and how this influences and shapes the ‘sarili.’

Heneral Luna, directed by Jerrold Tarog, with a cast composed mostly of theater stalwarts, is being lavished with critical and public acclaim. Still in theaters after popular demand, it was recently named the country’s official entry to the 2016 Oscar Awards’ Best Foreign Language Film category.

Among the historical films, this one refuses to become a hagiography—the usual Filipino approach to personages enshrined as national heroes—and instead deconstructs these icons and presents them as they are, men and women of their time and place. We can relate to them and understand their motivations and actions. This is why the film rings true and appeals to a wide audience.

I watched Heneral Luna twice at the cinema, and at both screenings viewers applauded at the conclusion, as if a Philippine Airlines pilot were touching down in Manila after a long-haul flight from a foreign country. This is an apt analogy if one considers Tarog as pilot and the film the vehicle that brought us to a different land, one of new realizations and comprehensions.

Heneral Luna’s triumph is that it bothers us, makes us squirm in our seats, as we ask ourselves: if that were myself, how would I respond, how would I react? Would I be able to put nation above family and self and sacrifice all, even my life?

The “ang mamatay nang dahil sa iyo” motif is so inculcated in each Filipino who grew up in this country, that dying for country in war or other ideological struggle is considered glorious and the just due of Inang Bayan, a mental construct deified as cult goddess.

Yet how few are those truly willing to do so, as Luna asks Felipe Buencamino when the latter insists he loves the Philippines: Enough to die for her?

For making us think and feel about these ideas, Heneral Luna succeeds.

With this film, director Jerrold Tarog has succeeded in “catching the wind,” as a line in the film goes, and unleashed it as a whirlwind upon the hearts and intellects of its viewers.

Such is its appeal that interest in the history of the Philippine Revolution has spiked. The companion book, “Heneral Luna: The History Behind the Movie,” Ria Limjap’s interview of historian Vivencio Jose, whose book “The Rise and Fall of Antonio Luna” provided much of the background and detail for the film, sold out quickly in bookstores.

For the most part, the people behind it cannot account for its instant popularity. On the Heneral Luna Facebook page, executive producer Fernando M. Ortigas and screenwriter-producer E. A. Rocha said in a joint statement:

 “[T]he beautiful irony of it all is that, now, through some magic, we’ve been rewarded with a film that is pleasing its audiences no end, with a film that’s entertaining, enlightening, and educational.”               

 I would like to see Artikulo Uno Productions make the other films that will complete the trilogy foreshadowed in Heneral Luna: about Gregorio del Pilar and his ill-fated stand at Tirad Pass, and Manuel L. Quezon, aide-de-camp to Aguinaldo and himself later, in a spin of fate, becoming the second president of the Philippines.

Let us also have films that celebrate our she-roes! As editor and award-winning poet Alma Anonas-Carpio put it, “We have Gabriela Silang, Teresa Magbanua, and so many other women who led the battles of the Philippine Revolution from the front, bolos and rifles out. Because valor, courage, and love of country are traits that do not choose genders.”

Heneral Luna also reminds us that the issues of their time remain unresolved to this day —regionalism, infighting, personal agenda above the collective good, envy, lack of discipline, the ascendance of the oligarchy, colonial mentality, and a failure of the individual moral compass.

These were also the concerns of Jose Rizal’s writings and those of others of that movement, and it shows us what we have failed to achieve in more than a hundred years since then. On a note of hope, it is a map that can guide our efforts, if only we learn the lessons of that past and use them to remake our present and transform our future.

Most of all, Heneral Luna reminds us we still have much work to do to build our nation. Adelante, compatriotas!       


Facebook: Jenny Ortuoste, Twitter: @jennyortuoste, Instagram: @jensdecember, Blog:

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