A friend of mine, another historian, and I the other day were discussing what it is we think underpins people’s broad, laudatory acclaim for the movie “Heneral Luna.” Leaving aside my baseline satisfaction with and gratitude for anything that stimulates popular engagement with Philippine history, particularly with the Philippine Revolution’s history which is the history that I directly study, I find myself very baffled by the reception this film has received.
Prof. Leloy Claudio mused that the acclaim is due to people’s desire for categorical moral positions—easy, uncomplicated nationalism. Oppose America at all costs—forget that people were dying, that the cost of such persistence was Americans burning villages wholesale, loss of livelihood, and all for new masters whom nobody trusted would be anything but new conquerors filling the shoes of the West. In this light, it is easy to denounce Felipe Buencamino’s position as “traitorous;” and in such categorical understandings of nationalism and morality, if he is willing to “betray” the “nation” it must be for his own self-interest.
Rather, Leloy reminds, the annexationist position should be taken more seriously and not so easily dismissed by the mainstream nationalist narrative. There is a respected line of ‘reformism,’ best known through the ilustrado-led Propaganda Movement that agitated for reforms but not independence from Spain, that informed Buencamino’s position. Indeed, many truthfully believed that the interests of the Philippines, positioned within the nest of European and Japanese imperial possessions and prey to rapacious foreign powers’ ever-increasing designs at a point in history known for the “Scramble for Africa” and the divvying up of the world among the violent competing empires, would be best served through a (hopefully) beneficent annexation. This idea naturally offends our sense of rightful sovereignty, but given the geopolitical realities of the time, we could do well to take more seriously the possibility of the Buencamino-types acting in good faith according to what they sincerely believed to be the best answer for the Philippines.
More provocatively, Leloy challenges that he believes that if a national survey were to poll the Philippine population, you may find that a surprisingly large percentage of the population would still today be in favor of annexation as the 51st state of the United States. It is easy to be offended by this idea, but I would guess that those who would today be in favor of such an idea are those who are already leaving the Philippines to find economic opportunity in the United States and elsewhere in the world. For those whom our nation-state has failed here at home, this may also be a black-and-white question, but with an answer that the nationalist orthodoxy denounces.
This brings me to my own unease with “Heneral Luna.” The message “Luna” incants repeatedly is we will never rise if we are divided; we must put aside our own parochial, solipsistic, familial, economic, and individual interests and sacrifice ourselves for the nation. I believe that—I believe that we should help one another; I believe that by rising above our own self-interests we better safeguard opportunity and promise for all. We do this by forming a strong, bonded, and invested community, or, rather, a nation. Those, however, are very deep qualifiers.
The “nation” appears as a naturalized entity in the movie when it was anything but at the time. Until 1896 there was not even a name for the nation, much less a unifying language, common history, sense of brotherhood, sense of trust that a poor Visayan farmer could place in the Tagalogs in the North who seemed to them just waiting to fill the shoes of the Spanish. This, as ever, remains the danger with the ideologies of nation-states. Who defines which principles and peoples comprise the nation, whom that nation represents, whose interests that nation serves—none of these are natural answers amid such divisions as one finds in our country, with persistent oligarchic control of economic power and political dynasties on one hand, and those that the nation-state has too often failed on the other; take for example the Muslim minority demanding due respect for its traditions. It is easy for a Luna to say: abandon your field, give up your sons, and be proud that you died for your nation. This assumes that the nation he is asking people to fight for was indeed their nation, but then as now, the people asking for sacrifice were in positions of power, stood to gain from others’ sacrifice, while for those making the sacrifice, it may not have been so black and white a request.
This brings me to my second feeling of unease regarding the public’s reception of “Heneral Luna.” There seems to be a renewed luster to the idea of a benevolent dictator, and Heneral Luna as styled in the film cuts just such a figure. We may naturally admire exceptional (though complicated) figures such as Lee Kuan Yew as we bemoan the state of our society, but, as the voices of those who suffered under the Marcos dictatorship die out, we should not allow ourselves to shortchange the injustices of that history. It may be nice to hope that some strong figure will cut into the scene and through sheer force alone will solve our problems and discipline our society and set us on a better path, but democracy, in its true substance and not just in its form, is messy work, and nobody else will do it for us.
Nicole Del Rosario CuUnjieng is a PhD Candidate in Southeast Asian and International History at Yale University.