The Philippine-American war of 1899 was one of the bloodiest conflicts in the annals of colonialism, and a clear forerunner to Vietnam. Docu, co-directed by Filipina-American professor Camilla Benolirao Griggers and experimental Filipina filmmaker Sari Lluch Dalena, alternates between their two voices — historical narration in English over mind-boggling archival photographs, combined with poetic musings in Tagalog over painterly reenactments of wartime horrors. Pic should spark discussion and controversy in festival and indie outings.
Griggers, the force behind the film, has found some extraordinary facts and footage: a recording of President McKinley’s infamous speech about the dream in which God told him to seize the Philippines in the name of “benevolent assimilation” rings out over photographs of thousands of troops landing and assembling warehouses of heavy artillery. Young American soldiers pose proudly next to the gunned-down or strung-up bodies of Filipinos, while Griggers’ dispassionate enumeration of American edicts and subsequent atrocities tells of unthinkable violence visited upon a resistant civilian population where anyone old enough to hold a rifle was considered an enemy.
Griggers puts a personal spin on her history lesson, drawing parallels between the betrayal of trust of the Filipinos by the Americans (who had promised to aid the cause of Filipino self-rule against the Spanish) and her American grandfather serviceman’s betrayal of his wife and children, abandoned for a new American family after his military stint.
Sari Lluch Delana’s impressionistic restagings seem gimmicky after the cool horror of Griggers’ facts and photos. Some depict a passive bunch of men who never fire their rifles and follow their unarmed women to the slaughter. In an apparent bow to feminist antiwar beliefs, Delana has virtually turned battlefields into rituals of self-immolation, where women and children are chosen victims and men die so that women may mourn.
One of the most fascinating reenactments of the film is supplied not by the filmmakers but by Thomas Edison, some of whose first films were propaganda pieces in support of annexation. Shot in New Jersey, they cast African-Americans as Filipinos, reinforcing the racist double-standard of American democracy. Griggers makes a strong case for the triumph of the new visual media over old print media — “yellow journalist” photo-spreads and motion pictures of “uncivilized” natives clearly trumped Mark Twain, who spent 10 years opposing America’s policies in the Philippines
Perhaps more shocking than the stamping out of an indigenous culture is the amnesia that has taken over perpetrators and victims alike. At the end of the docu, under the credits, we hear random people in America and the Philippines asked what they know about the war. On both sides, after puzzled silence or nervous giggling or wild stabs at floating historical trivia, the answer is virtually nothing. No one who sees this film can claim such blissful ignorance.