This month, I attended the New York premier of ‘Amigo,’ an independent film about the Philippine-American War. The film supplements John Sayles’ novel A Moment in the Sun, which details a small chapter in US history, but one of the utmost significance to contemporary geopolitics.
The United States purchased the Philippines from Spain at the turn of the 19th century for $20 million. As a result of the Spanish-American War, the United States acquired Cuba, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. At first grateful for their liberation from imperial Spanish rule, Filipinos quickly discovered that life under an American ‘protectorate’ was similarly deleterious. In 1898, US President William McKinley crafted his policy of ‘benevolent assimilation,’ which sought to win over the local population by acclimating it to Western amenities with an eye on maintaining a firm grip over the nation’s political and economic way of life. For the next 16 years, the United States incurred the wrath of a fervent resistance movement, before eventually capitulating to Filipino demands for independence.
The film is a testament to the politics of occupation, a fitting theme considering that more than 100 years later, the United States is still occupying countries halfway around the world. The main protagonist is Rafeal Dacanay, played by Joel Torre, the Cabeza de Barangay (read: chief) of the small, rural village of San Isidro. When American troops occupy his village and ask for Dacanay’s help in locating and eliminating elements of Filipino resistance, the Barangay leader is faced with a painful dilemma made all the more difficult considering his brother Simon (Ronnie Lazaro) is the head of the local resistance fighters.
US behaviour in the Philippines during the time it occupied the country was nefarious not just because of the crude use of force by the invading colonial power, but also because of the clever manipulation and exploitation of symbols, language, relationships and ideology. This had the ultimate aim of subverting traditional expressions in ways that benefitted the foreign occupying force, and their effects are eloquently detailed within the film: creating traitors among friends, undermining established habits of obedience in favour of new ones, institutionalizing new symbols of loyalty and directing the inhabitants into new patterns of tastes and preferences.
The comparisons with our modern day conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are innumerable. First, the young American troops lack any modicum of cultural sensitivity. They don’t know the language, the norms or anything beyond the notion that the US way is the right way. There’s no appreciation or respect for the fact that they are on someone else’s land, and from their arrival they seek to exploit the local population on a number of levels. There are also repeated references to winning the ‘hearts and minds’ of the locals, a phrase that seems to confound American policymakers to this day. (Also of note here, the Philippine-American war is said to be the first conflict where waterboarding was used).
Even as an American, I couldn’t help inwardly cheering for the resistance guerrillas. No one wants to be reduced to being a guest on their own land. Nor could one blame the local inhabitants for fighting back against their oppressors, especially when the occupation is amplified by the ignobility and disrespectful nature of the invading force. The sad thing is that our representatives in Washington still haven’t learned their lesson, whether it be in the Philippines, Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan. As Philippine National Hero Dr. Jose P. Rizal once put it, ‘Ang hindi marunong lumingon sa pinang-galingan ay hindi maka-karating sa paro-roonan’ (‘He who does not acknowledge the past will never reach his destination’).
Unfortunately, the acting in the film is sophomoric, partly due to budgetary constraints. Still, the brilliant Chris Cooper (The Bourne Identity, The Kingdom) is a lifesaver, and what the native Filipino actors lack in talent, they more than make up for in a stirring dedication to the film's ultimate objective.
I should also add that some of the scenes filmed in the countryside are breath-taking, including those shot in the rice paddy town of Maribojoc in Bohol. It helps make ‘Amigo’ recommended viewing, if only to serve as a history lesson for an increasingly ignorant American populous.
Tim LaRocco is a graduate student of international relations at The City College of New York. He has travelled throughout the developing world, including stints as a volunteer worker in the Public Parks Department in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and as a researcher for the South African Human Rights Commission in Cape Town. He currently lives in Long Island, New York.