Opinion

'Heneral Luna' Does Not Glorify Dictators, Says Jerrold Tarog

Heneral Luna's director, Jerrold Tarog, on the faults of his main character, and why we should not glorify dictators.
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Promotions and preparations for the release of my upcoming film, Goyo: Ang Batang Heneral are under way, and along with the expectations and anticpation, I've also had to field criticism as well. Last week, author and De La Salle University professor Leloy Claudio tweeted about Heneral Luna, the immediate predecessor of Goyo, as well as its planned third installment about Manuel Quezon. The trilogy of films, in Claudio's opinion, is an example of Filipino cinema flirting with authoritarianism.

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I completely understand where Mr. Claudio is coming from. Anyone who values freedom should always be suspicious of things that could take it away. In this case, Heneral Luna and the ongoing trilogy is considered a threat. There is a vocal subset of the population who even think that Luna paved the way for the Duterte administration, to which I will always say: Show me a valid survey with a completely sufficient sample size that proves direct causation, not correlation, and we can have a conversation about this. From where Mr. Claudio sits, it seems we are clearly building a trilogy about strongmen, with the possiblity of glorifying Marcos and Duterte. He could not be more off the mark.

Our intention was clear when we made the film but, as mentioned in my old Facebook post, we were also aware how the film could be misinterpreted. There is always an element of danger whenever something is said aloud because that tends to drown out the subtext. And boy, was Antonio Luna, the character, loud. 

Luna, the character and the actual person, was uncompromising and violent. That was what made him filmable. Because a lot of Filipinos seem to have a fondness for strongmen, we knew Luna’s behavior was the thing that will be remembered the most. I don’t know if this could be considered a fault, but we made the film thinking there are enough people out there who know right from wrong.

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"Luna, the character and the actual person, was uncompromising and violent. That was what made him filmable."

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Look at the other characters surrounding Luna in the film. They serve as the moral compass—albeit an intentionally shaky compass. Eduardo Rusca tried to stop Luna from shooting the chicken vendor. Paco Roman tried to calm Luna down after his outburst at the cabinet meeting. Felipe Buencamino defended himself in the end (he had every right), and, while he was outraged at Luna’s murder, he pointed out Luna’s major flaws. And let’s not forget Luna’s line in the aforementioned chicken vendor scene: “Walang nakaaangat sa batas, kahit na Presidente.” We leave these things for the audience to discover and think about.

We tried to make a nuanced film about a character that seemed to have none. But if there’s one thing I learned after being in the industry for more than 15 years, it’s that once your film is out there, it doesn’t belong to you anymore. It becomes a personal experience, good or bad, for the audience member.  

While storytellers must act responsibly, it is not our job to tiptoe around undiscerning viewers. We tell our stories the way the vision dictates. We apply the craft, or what we know of it, and hope for the best. 

It is the job of people like Mr. Claudio—teachers, historians, the educated elite—to extract meaning and inform the rest about what we were trying to achieve. He is a professor, and he is supposed to influence how people think, and lead them to think. Except, of course, he is doing the opposite with his post. He is telling artists what to do so he can feel safe. His choice of words reveals a mind-boggling form of conservatism and suppression from the left—of all places—that I can’t even begin to articulate.

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This is not to say any interpretation of the film beyond the original intent is invalid. I just wish that people with influence, such as Mr. Claudio, had looked at other points-of-view before expressing his outrage online. In many cases, it is always better to ask questions first than to point fingers right away and condemn using only one’s convictions. Also, can we please finish the trilogy first? We’re not even sure how high Goyo will fly in terms of box office results and the Manuel Quezon film is kind of dependent on its success. We would really like to have a chance to complete the trilogy’s vision.  

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I am not naïve. There are plenty of undiscerning viewers out there but let us not allow confirmation bias to limit our view. For every person who says Heneral Luna promotes authoritarianism, there are people who think otherwise and who understood what we were going for—as evidenced by numerous reactions, articles, and reviews since 2015. Do we intend to glorify dictators? Of course not. That is an insult to every Filipino who understood that Antonio Luna’s downfall in the film was precisely his authoritarian attitude.

Right before the film started there was a disclaimer: This film is a work of fiction based on facts. Liberties have been taken with the depiction of historical figures and the order of events. While historical accuracy is important, there are bigger truths about the Filipino nation that can only be reached by combining the real and the imaginary. That was a long-ass disclaimer—did Mr. Claudio miss it? Although we didn't have to, we reminded people that they were seeing a movie and not a piece of historical revisionism. Sure, there are many people who can’t make the distinction between cinematic entertainment and real life, but should educators help those people, or should they demand that our storytellers watch themselves instead?

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Most filmmakers tell their stories in the hopes that the majority will understand. We always try to do it for the smart people in the room. And if some people don’t get it, we hope the smart ones will help them catch up. Of course, in some cases, we nervously hope that our film isn't the stupid part of the equation. Otherwise, we try again, and hope the next story is better. The moment we start being afraid of saying something dangerous and start censoring artistic expression because we assume the audience is stupid is the moment we give in to authoritarians, whichever end of the political spectrum they may come from.

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About The Author
Jerrold Tarog
Jerrold Viacrucis Tarog is a Filipino film director, producer, writer, score composer, and editor.
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