It is easy to bring into the spectatorship of Bonifacio: Ang Unang Pangulo the expectations we have of say—Mike de Leon’s Bayaning Third World, or Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s Jose Rizal. That would of course be unfair to this film, which was clearly working with a different set of goals, if not a different audience altogether.
Which is to say, and this is stating the obvious, wanting to bring in the youth and have this discussion with them about Andres Bonifacio. It set out to put together a story of Bonifacio, relative to what elementary and high school students would be learning in their history books.
It set out to put into question the fact that when we study the Presidents of the Philippines, Bonifacio is not one of them. That when we study our heroes, Bonifacio is only second to Jose Rizal. That when we think of the 1896 Revolution, we think it merely a historical event that is over and done with.
This film has been critiqued for its simplistic storytelling. That would be missing the point.
The form of the film is one that parallels the story of the Bonifacio and the Katipunan, and the story of a group of young students in the present who find themselves in the Museo ng Katipunan in San Juan for a class project.
This narrative of the present is one that was more nuanced than just being mere narrative bridge. It was in these well-written moments in the present and in the discussion among the three students and the museum curator (Eddie Garcia) that one is allowed a sense of mainstream thought about Bonifacio. It was here that the movie’s intervention on history telling became clear.
Because it is in this discussion in the present that history as we know it is put into question. It is here where Bonifacio as traitor to Emilio Aguinaldo is contradicted, and the question of, “What made Bonifacio the first president?” is asked.
It is here that the stage was set for the kind of Bonifacio story this film wanted to tell, and how it wanted to tell it. The discussion in the present led quite seamlessly to the telling of the past, and this is why the present as parallel was important, and this particular present even more so: because it would also allow for a younger audience’s questions to be answered.
I might know the story of Bonifacio, but that is obviously nothing relative to the generations of students who will continue to think him nothing but the hero of the Katipunan, over and done with and less relevant than the National Hero and the Presidents of nation.
The parallel narrative in the present contextualizes the film’s assertion that Bonifacio is the first President of the Philippines, a refusal in itself to bow to mainstream history and thought.
But first there was Bonifacio’s humanity to be told. Contrary to what others have said about this telling’s failure to reveal his flaws, there was enough here to allow an audience to imagine Bonifacio both as hero and as human being. Contrary to the idea that shifts to the present day kept from building on the drama of the life and times of Bonifacio, this form actually became the balance that kept this film from becoming mere hagiography.
Because while the heroism of Bonifacio was expectedly in the well-chosen and staged scenes that reveal him to have been at the center of revolutionary thought and the Katipunan, it was in the quieter scenes that the other aspects of his person are revealed.
In the scenes with Rizal, Bonifacio thought differently and distinctly from the national hero about change and revolt. After Rizal is jailed, Bonifacio was hesitant about becoming the leader of the Katipunan, even as he knew the value of, and pushed for, growing its membership.
With Oryang, Bonifacio is a romantic, also enamored by and respectful of the strength of her convictions. With his sister he balances his role as protective brother who also cares about her happiness. With the dead and injured of the Katipunan his is a sadness and pain that is all human. Faced with the unexpected election of Aguinaldo as President, his is the dignified anger of someone pushed against the wall with insults.
All these happened in a swiftly told narrative that chose its historical facts and moments well. There were no long-drawn out scenes, no speeches and sermons. Supporting characters were archetypal, which shone an even brighter light on the humanity of both Bonifacio and Oryang.
This was of course all deliberate and it is what makes this work appealing as historical film: it consciously and unapologetically uses the present not to make storytelling easier. It uses the present to drive home the point it was making: we have yet to acknowledge Bonifacio as our first President, and that is telling of how his revolution is all but unfinished, how it can only continue.
Robin the revolutionary
It is difficult to watch this film and forget that this is also about Robin Padilla who plays Bonifacio, but also he who seems to have been changed by the making of this film, the portrayal of this hero.
It seems this is Robin imbued with Bonifacio’s revolutionary spirit, what Bonifacio stood for, what the 1896 Revolution was about. Certainly one does not forget that it is Robin playing Bonifacio—certainly that is part of watching this film. There is also no forgetting that it is Vina Morales playing Oryang, but it is this kind of familiarity that will allow for this film’s ideological underpinnings to sink into the minds of a mass audience, deeper than any other historical film.
Because Robin lives Bonifacio. You’d know it if you’ve listened to him talking about the film on TV and social media. There is a sense that while we’ve always known him to be rebel, that this has given his rebellious spirit a grounding, a clear direction, one that is about justice and equality, one that is about opening up one’s mind to the inequities in nation, and knowing about the possibility of change.
To say that Bonifacio the film has made Robin’s icon relevant is to tell an incomplete story.
In fact Robin’s icon has also imbued Bonifacio’s story with relevance. It is Robin’s icon—as
well as his nephew Daniel’s—that will generate interest in Bonifacio: Ang Unang Pangulo.
But it is Bonifacio’s story and humanity and heroism that has layered Robin’s current icon with importance. Many play hero in film, but few live it up; many play with history, but few live up to it.
This film challenges us all to view Bonifacio as nation’s first President. It dares us to see that the revolution continues. That many-a-review have failed to mention both in relation to this film, speaks precisely of this film’s significance.
We are told we are a forgetful nation with no sense of history. I have a sinking feeling that we just choose to be blind.