Notes from the LFF: Amigo (John Sayles, USA, 2010)

Filipino cinema has seemingly had a bit of a renaissance recently – although why I say this will need to be put in context.

From what I understand, the Philippines did have a thriving local film industry in the 1930s, with plenty of domestic stars that mitigated the unrelenting presence of Hollywood products. The country’s art house peak, meanwhile, is perhaps exemplified by the work of Lino Brocka, who was a prominent figure on the film festival circuit in the 1970s and 1980s.

But of late a ‘new wave’ (whatever this term means these days) has been spearheaded by Brillante Mendoza, by whom I have only seen Lola/Grandmother (France/Philippines, 2009), which was excellent and which makes me want to see more. In other words, it seems as though the Philippines has its own fair crop of talented filmmakers and that Filipinos are more than capable of telling their own stories – as perhaps has been clearly exemplified in the realm of literature by the work of José Rizal, whose novel Noli Me Tangere (1887) forms a core part of Benedict Anderson‘s analysis of nations as ‘imagined communities.’

Rizal perhaps inevitably gets a mention both in this blog (as the only Filipino some of whose work I have read) as well as in John Sayles’ latest film, Amigo, in which a character declares that the Philippines will be saved one day by Jesus Christ and José Rizal riding into town. The moment raised a laugh in the audience, perhaps by people who had heard of Rizal in a bid to vocalise the fact that they recognised the name, but more likely because a fair number of London’s Filipino community seemed to be in attendance at this London Film Festival screening.

And while the mention got something of an approbatory laugh – suggesting that the desire for Filipino economic independence may still make of the the Philippines something of a ‘people to come‘ – it also got me to thinking: why is this film being made by John Sayles?

Don’t get me wrong: I find John Sayles a most intriguing filmmaker. His stilted, even belaboured dialogue can be heard a mile away (not least because it is often spoken, as in this film, with the voice of Chris Cooper). And yet his films, didactic though they can be, are still committed in their righteousness concerning the effort to revivify/sustain America’s ever-dwindling left. That and the fact that Sayles started as a writer on films like Piranha (Joe Dante, USA, 1978), Alligator (Lewis Teague, USA, 1980), and The Howling (Joe Dante, USA, 1981).

Furthermore, Sayles has been a filmmaker committed to making films about issues that are not necessarily connected to him. By which I mean to say, that from his treatment of lesbianism in Lianna (USA, 1983), to his treatment of race in The Brother from Another Planet (USA, 1984), TexMex relations in Lone Star (USA, 1996 – and my favourite Sayles film to date), and Mexican life in Men With Guns (USA, 1997), we might argue that Sayles has taken up ’causes’ with which he may well share all levels of kinship, but which sometimes are the kinds of stories that those involved in these situations must tell for themselves. In other words, Sayles is neither a lesbian, nor black, nor Mexican.

Nor is he Filipino. And yet here is directing a film in part about Philippine independence. For Amigo tells the story of a village chief, Rafael (Joel Torre), who must deal with an invading US garrison at the turn of the last century, which has helped to relieve the Philippines of Spain’s colonial presence, only to decide to take the country for itself/as its own.

As in any Sayles film, we get a plethora of viewpoints on what is happening in the film, including that of many of the American soldiers posted in the baryo, a bunch of the locals, a Spanish priest (Yul Vazquez) who is lingering to retain control of his flock, and even some Chinese workers whom the Americans employ (and who soon into the film are slaughtered by Filipino rebels living out in the wilds).

In other words, Sayles is ‘fair’ as a filmmaker in at the very least trying to give as many of the myriad possible viewpoints there could have been and perhaps were of/at this particular moment in world history. Interestingly, the war depicted here has apparently been referred to by Sayles as a ‘forgotten war.’ But this does beg the question: forgotten by whom? I have no idea whether this was is a monumental war for Filipinos, but it seems most likely that this is a war ‘forgotten’ by Americans.

But if this is the case, then why have no Filipino filmmakers (whose work is at all available outside of the Philippines) addressed this moment in Philippine history? Perhaps because it is forgotten in the Philippines. But this still cannot prevent the film from seeming at times like a lesson in other people’s history. More ironic: the film implicitly is a critique of American imperialism (Rafael, who is perhaps an impossibly/infallibly good guy in the film, ends up being pointlessly executed after a ceasefire), and yet for an American to tell Filipino history is potentially to mirror on a cultural level the economic/political/military ‘imperialism’ carried out by the USA 100+ years ago.

As mentioned, the film is ‘fair’: there are good and bad American soldiers, those who make an effort to get on with the locals (including the obligatory young GI who falls in love with a girl with whom he cannot verbally communicate – the stuff of a true, loving relationship, for sure), and those who remain somewhat ignorant/racist. There is one particularly bad local (Nenong, played by John Arcilla) who is looking to find a way to depose Rafael, and some rebels who are not so much bad as constrained to carry out an attempted murder on Rafael because they recognise that he may be perceived as helping the Americans (when in fact he just trying to keep the peace). But on the whole, everyone is likeable(-ish). It is not that the film should have villains that are readily identifiable; but the film does have a couple of these, and it also has a couple of readily identifiable ‘hero’ types, not least Rafael himself. The problem arises, then, in that by idealising Rafael the versimilitude and the veracity of the film seem compromised…

Sayles should not and does not maintain mere gringo-bashing as his sole agenda, however. In fact, the baryo successfully takes on and uses their new access to democracy to vote in Rafael over Nenong at one point; the imposition of democracy might even be a laudable thing in several respects. But whatever problematising that the film makes of the various issues at play (maybe imposing democracy on people who do not have it is sometimes an okay thing to do), applies to the film itself (telling other people’s histories for them can sometimes be okay, but we should be wary that it is a complex and thorny issue, out of which Sayles wishes to take something of an easy way out, it seems, because, speaking frankly, the film is not particularly self-conscious about its role as a representation of history, even if the acting sometimes has a touch of the Brecht about it).

If we compare Amigo to Lola, then arguably we can see something of a difference to be highlighted. Bearing in mind that I may be prey to believing Lola as a ‘true’ portrayal of contemporary Manila, because its handheld, digital shooting style is of course designed to induce credulity in me/the audience, not least because that and associated techniques have historically been linked to movements involving the word ‘realism,’ Lola does at least have an ‘imperfect’ or ‘raw’ look to it. This suggests that Mendoza works with a very small budget and outside of even the Philippine mainstream (let alone outside of Hollywood), which probabilistically if not de facto means that Mendoza can make a film that must respect/allow to creep into its being reality itself – because the filmmakers do not have the budget to shoot the whole film in a perfectly controlled manner.

Sayles is well known as an independent filmmaker, who uses script editing as a means to finance his films – i.e. he has limited funds, too, and makes films his own way. His latest film is set over 100 years ago, and so shooting on location (which he did) becomes hard to achieve without some falsification, such as the construction of the baryo in which most of the film takes place. But as an American filmmaker who makes plenty of cash from script rewrites in Hollywood, his level of ‘independence’ – regardless of whether chosen or enforced – is far greater than that of Mendoza, in the sense that he does (likely) have greater control over what happens on set, which means that fewer extraneous or, as I am arguing here, ‘true’ elements can or will find their way into the film.

It is not really about the story that is told in either film, then (FYI: Lola sees two grandmothers enter into each other’s lives, one as she tries to raise money for her grandson’s funeral, the other trying to raise money for the bail of her grandson, the murderer of the first grandson). Rather, it is about where the films are made and how much reality is allowed into them.

To malign Sayles on this level is in some respects unfair to him, since little or no reality from the past will make its way into any film, let alone his (in spite of the detailed and I would expect accurate mise-en-scène that his film does offer). But it is to say that Filipinos can and perhaps should tell their own stories – even if, as already mentioned, Sayles’ film is relatively ‘fair’ – in all senses of the word.

But while a Filipino audience might watch a Filipino film about independence from Spain and, subsequently, from the USA, would an American, British, or any non-Filipino audience go to watch that film? Do subtitles really make that much of a difference (there are subtitles in Amigo, but we (anglophone viewers) also get guidance from the American characters)? Do subtitles put audiences off films so much that they could not care to watch them? Given that few relatively few people will see Amigo, can we surmise that most audiences want to ‘forget’ (i.e. would prefer never to know) about the Filipino independence movement and America’s war over there? Given that fewer still will watch Lola, can we surmise that most (Western?) audiences want to ‘forget’ (i.e. would prefer never to know) about Filipino life at all? Given that relatively few people in the Philippines watch Mendoza’s films (which therefore might be considered ‘festival films’), can we surmise that few Filipinos want to watch films about their own country (or at least would prefer escapist fare to neorealist-influenced, art house fare? Can we surmise that few people want to watch art house films full stop?

If, as seemed the case with the elements of the audience in London that I took to be Filipino/interested in the Philippines, Filipinos are grateful to Sayles for telling this story, is this because he is bringing to the attention of the non-Philippine/anglophone world a moment in history that should be remembered? In other words, does the film function as a way of bringing attention to the Philippines full stop? (Film as a tool for tourism?) Or are they grateful that the film has at least interested someone because neither Filipinos nor anyone else is/seems interested in making a film about Filipino independence? And if this is the case, why is this so? Because we have fatigue from information overload and few are those who are prepared to grit their cerebral teeth and keep on taking in information? Or because the globalising processes that have in part helped to bring about information overload are truly ‘eurocentric’ processes that privilege the global rich over the global poor – hence my own personal anger and attempts to swallow my frustration every time I hear a student tell me straight-faced that they don’t like art house (especially politically-minded art house) cinema because it is ‘boring’?

An interview with Sayles is to be found here for your consideration.

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About wjrcbrown

I am a Lecturer in Film at Roehampton University. I am a sort of filmmaker.
This entry was posted in American cinema, Film reviews and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Notes from the LFF: Amigo (John Sayles, USA, 2010)

  1. Pingback: Notes from the LFF: Orion (Zamani Esmati, Iran, 2010) | wjrcbrown on film

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