A question of heroes

Of the varied fare produced by this year’s Metro Manila Film Festival, it was “El Presidente,” the film depicting the life of Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo, that I was most eager to watch. Films about a nation’s heroes are always tricky affairs. If they show nothing new about the persons or the circumstances in which they lived, they risk becoming utterly boring. If, on the other hand, they set out to project heroes in a new light, they are likely to face the question: What is fiction and what is fact?

For people who are familiar with the controversies surrounding Aguinaldo’s role in the nation’s history, “El Presidente” might prove disappointing. It neither poses new questions nor offers new answers to old questions. But, the film is important nonetheless because Aguinaldo deserves greater appreciation as a hero than he has been accorded. The film takes this perspective. In arguing its case, it encounters two difficulties. The first is how to do it without trampling on the memory of other heroes. The second is how to construct a nuanced historical narrative that can sustain the typical moviegoer’s attention.

One thinks of a work like “John Adams,” an American television series, which was broken down into episodes of about an hour each. In the pantheon of American heroes, Adams occupies a far less illustrious position than his contemporaries—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. The film takes up crucial moments in the formation of the United States of America as a political entity, as seen from Adams’ perspective. As the film progresses, one acquires a deep appreciation not only of the complex and crucial role of John Adams in US history but, as well, of the birth pains that attended the emergence of America into a self-governing nation cobbled together from autonomous former colonies.

“El Presidente” might have been able to argue its case better if it had been similarly structured as a weekly TV series, thus allowing it greater leeway in developing Aguinaldo’s character and putting him in the context of his time and society. As a full-length film, it tried to redefine Aguinaldo and retell Philippine history in two and a half hours and came up sadly with little more than a series of dioramas. The film is painfully slow and uneven, and is made even more so by its attempt to encompass the entire life of Aguinaldo. It struggles to keep the viewer’s attention by treating him to a liberal dose of fight scenes that annoyingly struck me as a little too contemporary in execution and style.

My wife and I had persuaded our granddaughter, a sixth-grader at Miriam, to watch the movie with us. Julia once told me that she didn’t regret missing a field trip to Aguinaldo’s house in Cavite because she didn’t particularly like him. She said, knowingly, that the man was responsible for the death of the brave Andres Bonifacio. I remember telling her that the circumstances surrounding the execution of the Bonifacio brothers were not as simple as that. The war against Spain had just begun, I said. The Filipino revolutionaries were splintered into many local groups. Getting them to fight together was not easy. I told her about the Tejeros Convention and the bitter dissension it produced. “Yes, I know,” she said, “the Magdiwang and the Magdalo and all that.”

But, being able to name the contending factions within the Katipunan is not the same as knowing the social conditions that underpinned these divisions. Was it a question of social class—the Filipino principalia  versus the common tao? Or was it a question of local affinities standing in the way of unity? It is difficult to say.

My hope was that a movie about Aguinaldo could delve into such issues. By doing so, it might at least provide many discussion points for history classes. “El Presidente” glosses over these instead. It shows the Cavite Katipuneros led by Aguinaldo to be gracious and deferential in their reception of the visiting Supremo, discounting the possibility of any preconceived plan to marginalize him. In contrast, Aguinaldo is depicted as completely indifferent to formal positions, a soldier who would rather fight at the trenches than attend a convention to elect a government.

Aguinaldo is shown as having opposed the idea of carrying out the death sentence against the Bonifacios for the crime of treason. This seems to be in keeping with the noble, compassionate and non-confrontational character in which he is cast. This forgiving demeanor contrasts sharply with that of Antonio Luna, the brilliant general who was hobbled by a volcanic temper. The film portrays Luna in an unflattering way, showing him at his impulsive worst as a person and mentioning nothing of his contributions and masterful grasp of military strategy in the war against the Americans.

Heroes are human beings like the rest of us. They have doubts, fears, hopes, weaknesses and strengths. They are complex and often intractable. But their role in history is altogether different. It is defined by how they acted at crucial points in the evolution of their people—whether they sought their long-term advance or chose submission.

Aguinaldo’s heroism is beyond doubt. And I am glad that, despite its flaws, the film convinced my granddaughter that he was a good man and a worthy hero of our nation. Perhaps Aguinaldo’s unique misfortune is that, unlike most of our other heroes who were martyred at the height of their youth, he lived too long. He found himself swearing allegiance to the new conquerors who had deceived him. Subsequent episodes of public repudiation—as when he ran for the presidency of the Commonwealth government in 1935 and lost against Quezon—dimmed that shining moment of June 12, 1898 when he could have securely rested on his laurels.