Opinion

Sorry, 'Heneral Luna' Romanticized Strongmen

It may have even given us this government.
ILLUSTRATOR Jasrelle Serrano
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My comments on Twitter seem to have offended the director, Jerrold Tarog, and I offer my apologies for any personal hurt my words have caused. The good director has accused me of failing to do my job as a history teacher because, instead of educating students, I am “telling artists what to do.” I have never confused my criticism with writ, and neither have I been under any illusions of being able to dictate artistic content to a renowned director.

But I am a citizen of the Philippines, and I seek a democratic future for our country. And to this extent, I am wary of cultural content that may aid in eroding our democratic culture. Unfortunately, intentionally or unintentionally, Mr. Tarog’s Heneral Luna did just that.

In order to wash his hands of the effects his art might have on political events, Mr. Tarog imposes an unreasonably high bar on what constitutes artistic influence. On the issue of whether or not Heneral Luna helped elect Rodrigo Duterte, he dismisses critics through a challenge: “Show me a valid survey with a completely sufficient sample size that proves causation, not correlation, and we can have a conversation about this” (Of course there is no “valid survey,” but curiously, Mr. Tarog still engages in a disquisition about “this” very topic).

I am wary of cultural content that may aid in eroding our democratic culture. Unfortunately, intentionally or unintentionally, Mr. Tarog’s Heneral Luna did just that.

But the influence of literature and film cannot be reduced to simple causality. Stories do not cause; they pique curiosity, stimulate discussion, and reinforce/challenge worldviews. Sometimes the opinions they promote are democratic; sometimes they aren’t. Yet popular stories, democratic or authoritarian, have effects. To historians that claim Rizal’s novels inspired the Philippine revolution or that the film The Birth of a Nation paved the way for the re-emergence of the Ku Klux Klan, Mr. Tarog should likewise demand from them “a valid survey” that proves causation.

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Mr. Tarog knows it is absurd to measure art’s influences through surveys. Which is why he offers another excuse for promoting an authoritarian figure: “While storytellers must act responsibly, it is not our job to tiptoe around undiscerning viewers.” In other words, blame the “undiscerning” (read: stupid) audience members, not the filmmaker.

But did an audience member have to be “undiscerning” to walk out of Heneral Luna believing that it was an endorsement of authoritarianism? Mr. Tarog argues that he portrayed Luna as a man with flaws, citing scenes like when “Eduardo Rusca tried to stop Luna from shooting the chicken vendor.” I do not doubt this claim to nuance, because only the most idiotic of storytellers would portray their heroes as flawless. I never argued that Luna was Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ.

Instead of looking at chicken vendors, we should examine the film’s broad narrative arch. The beats of the film follow that of the contemporary blockbuster, and in certain respects, a superhero movie. When people watch blockbusters or superhero movies, they are not expecting tragedies about the hubris of authoritarianism. Rather, they expect stories about good guys vs. bad guys.

There is a diptych of heroism at the center of the film distilled in the line: bayan o sarili. Luna represents prioritizing the nation, while his enemies thought only of self. On one side, you find, in Tarog's words, the "uncompromising and violent" Luna, who wished to fight the Philippine-American War to the bitter end. Against him were the scheming and effete "traitors" like Buencamino who wanted to surrender to the Americans. If the film didn't hammer this message, its marketing definitely did.

It's the simplicity of "bayan o sarili" that continues to trouble me. As a historian, I object to portraying those who sued for peace as "traitors." The Philippine-American war was unprecedented in its violence, causing by some estimates the death of ten percent of the population. For politicians like Buencamino to seek peace after such carnage may have been traitorous to some, but humane for others. Provincial elites and ilustrados like Luna were leading their troops—many of whom were poor peasants—into slaughter, and while compromising with the enemy may have been less glorious than dying on the field of battle (alas, less cinematic?), it was not simple selfishness.

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It's the simplicity of "bayan o sarili" that continues to trouble me. As a historian, I object to portraying those who sued for peace as "traitors."

Those who "collaborated" with Americans have been pilloried for opportunism by historians from the "nationalist school" of the University of the Philippines. Its doyen, Teodoro Agoncillo, once claimed that T.H. Pardo de Tavera deserved to be shot for surrendering to the Americans. Heneral Luna dismisses these figures in the same light. But as Resil Mojares's Brains of the Nation (to me, the single most important book on Filipino ilustrados) shows, the collaboration of people like Pardo with the Americans had multiple impulses. Apart from pacifism, they believed, maybe naively, that the liberal reforms they sought under Spain would be possible under America. There's an argument to be made that the liberal reformist, Jose Rizal, who admired many aspects of American republicanism, would have agreed with his drinking buddy, Pardo.

Does this mean these people were not opportunists? No. But they were complex characters, maybe more complex than the martial Luna.

The fantastical belief, or perhaps counterfactual, at the heart of Heneral Luna is the wish for national deliverance after imperialism: if only we had beaten these Americans, if the traitors hadn’t sold us out... Never mind that independence from Americans would have still ended up with elite, cacique rule. Unfortunately, nationalistic deliverance may be as fleeting as the ending criminality in 3 to 6 months. But of course cinema and electoral politics must trade in fantasy.

So did Heneral Luna contribute to Duterte's rise? Maybe not directly. But it foregrounded a strong, dictatorial leader at a time when people were sick of effete and opportunistic liberals. It also glorified a violent nationalism and dismissed pacifism as treason. Mr. Tarog cannot wash his hands of this message. If I am inquisitorial, it is only because whatever authoritarian fantasies Mr. Tarog’s film may have generated are now becoming reality.

Mr. Tarog believes that my criticism constitutes “suppression.” But he confuses the critic for the censor. I do not wish to chill his work on Quezon—I might even pay good money to see it (I’d love to see a House of Cards, Philippine edition). But if he uses the Philippine de Gaulle to promote another “uncompromising” vision of Philippine politics, I will once again feel obligated to take a stand.

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Lisandro Claudio
Lisandro E. Claudio (@leloyclaudio on Twitter) is an Associate Professor at the Department of History, De La Salle University.
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