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

Amigo: Revisiting an Old War

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By Dr. Bienvenido Lumbera

The first Filipino film in contemporary times that grappled with the complex subject of Filipino-American War was Eddie Romero’s Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Kayo Ngayon? It was Romero’s comebacking movie after having spent time in Hollywood doing B-movies. In it he showed how a young man matured into a self-conscious Filipino during the resistance against Americans at the turn of the century. Romero’s was an ambitious project coming as it did in the first years of Martial Law, a Metro Manila Film Festival offering. It seemed to set a trend for meaningful films based on history. The trend did not happen, but starred a versatile star-to-be in the young Christopher de Leon.

And now comes Amigo, a film by American John Sayles whose passion for authenticity took him to Bohol where he re-created a turn-of-the-century village in Luzon to tell the story of a local leader who tried to straddle the two sides in the Filipino-American War and paid dearly for it. Amigo does not reach for the grand, comprehensive scope of Romero’s classic film Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Kayo Ngayon. What it does with its narrowed-down reach is to tell a story about Filipinos in the war that would resonate principally to the post-Vietnam/Iraq American public.

Seen from the point of view of Filipinos, Amigo is the tragedy of Rafael Dacanay who had initially tried to be “amigo” to the American invaders but could not remain so for long because he had a brother and a young son in the resistance that he would want to shield. With Joel Torre in the lead, Sayles’s screenplay makes a hero without tears of Dacanay, projecting a character with grit and determination who seeks as far as he could go to maintain cordial terms with the Americans.

The Americans, on the other hand, are under pressure to suppress resistance, and being “amigo” with the natives could hold only insofar as their military occupation does not suffer constriction. To force out information on the location of the forest stronghold of the Filipino rebels, Dacanay is subjected to “water torture” and then dragged through forest trails that are supposed to lead the Americans to the rebel headquarters. But he leads the Americans on a wild goose chase which culminates in a rebel ambush which costs the lives of several American soldiers.

Among his countrymen in the jungle which included his brother and his son, the suspicion sadly is that Dacanay is turning traitor and therefore ought to be treated as an enemy. Thus far, the Americans in Dacanay’s village of San Isidro have been at peace with the village people. The people have been taught to hold an election for a village official, and allowed to celebrate the fiesta of the patron saint, complete with a procession. When the American commander inspects conditions in the village, he is incensed that his troops have gone soft when in other localities the occupying forces have suffered rebel attacks. He orders a tightening of security and instituting control measures. To prevent the villagers from providing food and comfort to the rebels, the farmers’ carabaos are ordered killed, ricefields are torched, and barbed wire put up around the village to contain movement into and out of the village.

Sayles’ research on the Filipino-American war is commendably objective and his treatment of the warring sides fair. He does not flinch from detailing military practices unflattering to the American invaders, for instance. He presents the brutal zoning of villages and the torture known as “water cure” for prisoners, abuses recorded by historians who have written on the Filipino-American war, even as he details the atrocities committed by the rebels such as the massacre of the Chinese coolies in the employ of the American army.

It is a tribute to Sayles that he has written and filmed an account of the war that does not falsify history to exonerate his countrymen of crimes committed in pursuit of America’s imperialist adventure. At one point in the movie, the lieutenant in charge of the occupying forces in San Isidro puzzles out the persistence of village people in continuing to resist in spite of the obvious superiority of American arms. A subordinate remarks: “It’s their country.” Here we are reminded of Mabini’s letter to an American general in the thick of the war about the Filipino’s anti-colonial struggle, and the weight of Sayles’ movie for the Filipino viewers hits home.

Amigo might as well have been made by a Filipino filmmaker for it says what needed to be said about the patriotic spirit at work among the rebel characters in the narrative of the film. Our attention in the film has thus far been focused on the counter-moves of the two sides in getting on with the war, but in the sentencing of Dacanay to hanging, we are faced with the political issue of colonial power asserting its right to repress dissent of the colonized.

Dacanay represents the non-combatant civilian, a leader who stands between hostile forces and is finally compelled to take sides, and the inevitable choice impelled by nationality and family ties leads to his doom. The hanging concludes the film. Sayles wordlessly follows this up with the abrupt entry of a woman’s voice singing the lyrics of the traditional “Sa Dakong Silangan” whose melody has been re-tooled to make a militant song. This is Sayles’ final statement, and we are reduced to tears and gratitude by the American director’s anti-colonial gesture.