Heneral Luna — Of Generals and Generalizations

Negosyo o kalayaan? Bayan o sarili?

These haunting questions will sound familiar to anyone who flocked to the cinemas in the tail end of 2015 to see the biopic Heneral Luna, starring John Arcilla.

At the onset, Jerrold Tarog’s Heneral Luna is striking because it seemed to exemplify how Filipinos over the years, especially the elite class who dominate most spheres of influence in our country, have sanitized our history for the consumption of the wouldn’t-know-better masses.

70913-heneral_luna_posterCouple this with the Filipino historian Vicente Rafael’s thoughts published in Rappler last May, “How Revolutionary Was the Philippine Revolution?” whose main thesis was that the fight for freedom from Spain was jeopardized the moment elites stepped into the picture, because they joined the cause for a different set of interests.

For their part, the movie struck its audiences at first glance because for the longest time in recent memory, most Filipinos have only been able to produce and enjoy shallow, sensationalist films.

Heneral Luna provides a break from the nowadays mainstream themes of mistresses and Wattpad adaptations, and at the time, a breather before December’s Metro Manila Film Festival. (Enteng Kabisote’s Little Bossings Shaking, Rattling, and Rolling, anyone?) The VSCOCam-esque cinematography does not hurt as well.

After watching the movie a second time, though, it became easier to wonder: Is the movie genuinely good? Does it live up to its currently growing hype? Does it offer new information other than what can be readily searched in the Internet and in newer history books?

That most audiences were so amazed by the movie’s supposed revelations is telling of how poorly Filipinos actually know their own history. An incident where some teenage moviegoers asked why Apolinario Mabini stayed seated throughout the whole film is downright disappointing.

The ignorance, it would seem, stems partly from how history is taught in the classrooms — that is, in the traditional textbook manner — but also partly from how lightly we have been taught of the importance of the history subject itself. Students are all too often taught that past and present are separate entities, when in fact they are inextricably linked.

The movie itself has its fair share of admirable qualities, true, not least of which are the witty punch lines that resonate with the country’s brand of humor. (Fact: It is difficult to sell a Filipino movie without comedy.)

At the center: John Arcilla in the titular role.

Commendable as well is its attempt to humanize historical names in the same manner that Ambeth Ocampo did for Jose Rizal, even if everpresent are the dangers of oversimplifying narratives, of making caricatures in the process.

The positive reception of the Heneral Luna, however, plummeted to the extremes within weeks of its release. On Facebook, a post circulated because of its lament that “This movie is a million times more worthy than the useless and cheap movies ever produced by ABS-CBN and GMA Network.” Crab mentality aside, did the comparison really have to go that far?

Outside of the mainstream, the Filipino movie scene has not been entirely devoid of international-award-worthy films: On the Job, Ekstra, and Transit, for instance, received high critical acclaim in their respective international film festivals in the year 2013. The problem is that movies like these did not get to break into the mainstream; or if they did, they did not last too long in the cinemas.

On the other hand, on the matter of content, it is heartening to see that Heneral Luna has its fair share of dubious reception as well. In a nation that is fond of ingesting information at face value and taking it for granted, intelligent criticisms rarely go as viral as blind praises, but the former does exist.

One such criticism is on the movie’s light treatment of the American colonizers. The sheer number of casualties that the Americans actually caused during the Philippine-American War alone has been overshadowed in the film, in favor of the vilification of certain Filipino characters, including Aguinaldo.

One of Luna’s more quotable lines tries to explain it this way: “Ang pinakamalaking kalaban ng mga Pilipino ay ang kanilang sarili.” (The Filipinos’ greatest enemies are their own selves.)

Foreign periodicals have described Heneral Luna as ‘rousing,’ and that is when and why caution must be taken in praising the film.

In real life, meanwhile, there are no heroes or villains — only perspectives.

One concession that has to be made at this point is that history is an argument, and by taking on a certain perspective on certain men who fought in the Philippine-American War, the movie Heneral Luna becomes a historical argument in itself. That is, it is virtually impossible to tell every story of every event that ever happened in the past, so we must settle for telling one story at a time.

The argument-ness of history comes from deciding which one story to tell. Jerrold Tarog’s creation has clarified which story it chooses to tell: out of all the people who ever died for the country, that of the quick-tempered military tactician who was preyed on by business-minded powers.

In that same logic, out of all the possible contenders for the antagonist title, Aguinaldo’s character intentionally emerges as the easiest to hate. Nevertheless, this does not really vindicate the Americans. The matter of Americans being worse colonizers than the Spaniards, perhaps, will be picked up by another movie for another time.

The same goes for persons whose roles in history are obscured because of people’s preference for long-term selective memory. Other criticisms of the movie worthy of notice, after all, are the oversimplification of stories, the false dichotomy between hero and villain, and the consequently reckless idolatry of heroes. A number of foreign periodicals have described Heneral Luna as ‘rousing,’ and that is when and why caution must be taken in praising the film.

A special word of caution goes as well to the students who, at least at the time, flocked the cinemas at the recommendation (and incentivization) of their history teachers: The movie has its own cultural merits, yes, but take care not to treat it as an actual historical source. At best, it serves as a supplement, a convenient injection of creativity into our traditional history pedagogy.

Then again, those who have seen the film and those who have yet to watch must be cautioned as well: Let us not be so quick to generalize, to oversimplify a set of complex events, to admire Antonio Luna and call him a badass general. The man had his flaws, same as any other person, and some flaws are actually more preferable than others’.

That Luna is an eerie mirror of a certain politician today who has his own twisted methods of implementing the law, illustrates exactly that. That Luna has recently been associated with a man whom some Filipinos still consider the greatest president in Philippine history, is downright alarming.

Amidst all the generalizations and the hype, one thing is for certain: There are only still so many stories left untold. Until we realize that and act on it, we Filipinos only continue to prove Heneral Luna right, that our greatest enemies are our own selves.

The original version of this review first appeared in Sun.Star Cagayan de Oro in 2 parts: on 26 September 2015 and on 3 October 2015.