The society of respected film critics that hands out the annual Gawad Urian in cinematic excellence

Amigo: Fil-Am war remembered

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By Lito B. Zulueta

The new feature film by renowned American independent filmmaker John Sayles brings back the “forgotten” Philippine-American War at the turn of the 20th century, depicting it as the seed of the disastrous US imperialist ventures in Vietnam and Iraq. Filmed entirely in the Philippines with a cast and crew of Americans and Filipinos, and with its polyglot dialogue in English, Tagalog, Spanish, Chinese and Latin, Amigo is set in Luzon in 1900. It opens with an inscription of how the Americans, in prosecuting their war against Spain in Cuba, chose to extend it to another Spanish colony, the Philippines, “half a world away.” “They chose to stay (there in the Philippines),” the inscription laconically adds.

The movie (formerly titled “Baryo”) tells the story of a village in the middle of the Philippine-American War as its people try to pick up the pieces from the Philippines’ war of independence against Spain, while confronting the threat of further disintegration as American troops invade the country. When the Americans take over, they force the village head, Rafael Dacanay (played impressively by Filipino actor Joel Torre), to cooperate. “Soy muy amigo (I am a dear friend),” Dacanay tells the Custer-looking American commanding officer (played equally impressively by Oscar winner Chris Cooper). From then on, the Americans refer to him as “amigo,” as if it were his real name.

But Dacanay’s brother is a leader of the “insurrectos,” as what the Americans call the Filipino revolutionaries who fought Spain successfully and are now trying to stem the US invasion. His teenage son has also disobeyed him and run off to join the Filipino freedom fighters in the jungle. He is thus forced to walk the tightrope, doing a dangerous balancing act between the American conquerors and the Filipino resistance in order to protect the interest and safety of his people.

Since the Americans know that the village is the lifeblood of the rebels, providing the underground with food and material supplies, they “hamlet” the village and define its boundaries, impose a curfew, restrict the movement of the villagers and, to ensure that no food reach the rebels, kill off the carabaos and put a stop to the tilling of the fields.

The movie implies that today’s low-intensity warfare and hamletting originated from the American policy to constrict the Philippine resistance in the early 1900s.

But the American detail is also directed to “win the hearts and minds” of Filipinos. Trying to settle down with the natives, the Americans find the locals hospitable and the surroundings bucolic.

An American soldier barely out of his teens falls in love with a barrio lass; another soldier discovers the joys of the local wine tuba; and the lieutenant (Garret Dillahunt) allows certain liberties, such as elections and the holding of the traditional fiesta in honor of the patron saint, San Isidro de Labrador.

When the commanding officer returns already incensed by guerrilla raids in other towns, he explodes at the policy of rapprochement implemented in the village and orders Dacanay water-tortured to force him to reveal the rebel lair of his brother.

When the village chief leads the Americans on a wild goose chase to protect his brother and son, the commanding officer orders his execution.

The lieutenant, who is otherwise conscientious and would like to see Dacanay get off the hook, wonders aloud why the resistance fighters just wouldn’t give up despite their irreversible losses and the impending American victory.

“Why should they?” his subordinate tells him. “It’s their country.”

Brave, provocative, and insightfully funny, Amigo weaves a complex tale that does not simplify the issues involved in the war and tries to give voice to the Filipinos’ yearning for freedom.

It shows that even while subjugated, the Filipinos continue to resist through little acts of defiance, such as exploiting the language barrier in order to curse the Americans and call them “tsonggo” (monkey) and “multo” (ghost), a reference to their pale and ghostly complexion.

Sayles said he tried to capture the complexity of the war in the movie while tracing America’s conflicted policy in Iraq to its original imperialist venture in the Philippines.

“It’s the same in Iraq as it was in the Philippines 100 years ago,” Sayles said about the US occupation policy. “Now it’s winning the hearts and minds of the people, the next moment—finish them off!”

Considered a true-blue auteur or “author,” one who stamps his personal signature on his works through writing and directing his own movies, Sayles, 60, wrote, directed and edited Amigo. Straddling between the studio system and independent cinema, he has won several Oscar nominations, especially for his screenplays, which show complex characters in multicultural settings.

“The key term used to discuss Sayles’ conception of character is ‘complexity,’ and it is for this reason that he has often been seen as an ‘actors’ director,’” critics Marc Jancovich and James Lyons wrote in the book, Fifty Contemporary Filmmakers.

His films have thus become noted for their ensemble cast and the actors who have been identified with him include such fine thespians as Cooper and David Straitharn.

In Amigo, Filipino actors who got an opportunity to be part of Sayles’ ensemble include, aside from Torre, Bembol Roco, Rio Locsin, Ronnie Lazaro, and Pen Medina.

Another word associated with a Sayles film is “authenticity,” and this is reflected in his fidelity to the objective or historical fact or condition without, however, simplifying it and sacrificing complexity.

In Amigo, it is reflected in Sayles’ insistence on shooting in the Philippines despite Hollywood’s traditional aversion toward filming in this country because of perceived risks that insurance companies refuse to cover.

“I felt I could only make this film here,” he said in an Inquirer report. “Plus the Philippines has a real movie industry. Our cast and crew are film professionals who’ve experienced working in every type of movie.”

Filipino film professionals involved in Amigo include cinematographer Lee Briones-Meily and production designer Rodell Cruz, who capture the mood, colors and setting of a turn-of-the-20th-century Philippine village in the movie.

Sayles said he shot the movie in the Philippines because he couldn’t see how Queensland, Australia, or Shanghai, China, could have doubled for the Philippines, which was the case in the film “The Great Raid.”

Ironically, “The Great Raid,” about the daring Cabanatuan raid in 1945 in which American troops and Filipino guerrillas successfully liberated American POWs from a Japanese camp without a casualty, was made in the frenzy of patriotism that engulfed the United States after Sept. 11, 2001.

The frenzy led to the American invasion of Iraq on the pretext that Iraq had supported the al-Qaida attacks that brought down the New York Twin Towers and that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was harboring weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

No WMDs were found and mounting American casualties in Iraq spurred calls for the withdrawal of US troops, like what happened in Vietnam.

Academics and scholars critical of the Iraq adventure have pointed to the Philippines as “the first Vietnam” or “the original Iraq.” In 1898, on the pretext of avenging the bombing of the USS Maine on the Havana harbor, which the Americans blamed on the Spaniards despite the latter’s denial, the United States declared war on Spain and annexed Cuba and the Philippines.

The treaty that annexed the Philippines and signaled the start of the US imperialist venture was vociferously opposed by many sectors in America, notably by humorist Mark Twain. But the war of subjugation continued.

When the war was officially declared over in 1902, records showed proportionally the same statistics as the wars in Vietnam and Iraq.

According to the late Filipino historian-diplomat Antonio M. Molina, from February to November 1899, in the first phase of the war, there were 45 engagements every month, rising to 106 from December 1899 to June 1900. In the last phase of the war, the United States had to send 70,000 troops.

“In the whole course of the war, the enemy had to use 126,468 men, 4,234 of them dying during the campaign,” Molina wrote. “Some $600,000,000 were spent by the United States in the conduct of the war.”

But most Americans have forgotten the war. Even some Filipinos have. Ironically enough, the Philippines, under Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, supported the invasion of Iraq.

Wrote Filipino-American scholar Angel Velasco Shaw in 2002: “One hundred years after the official ending of the Philippine-American War, I am having … anxiety of memory. In my unease I recall lines from Mark Twain’s journal, censored from publication during the Philippine-American War—‘None but the dead have free speech. None but the dead are permitted to speak the truth.’”

Now, the forgotten war is resurrected—through Sayles’ ironically titled Amigo.