FIELDNOTES: Resisting Histories and Dishonoring Archives

IN the 40th Gawad Urian, we chose “Balangiga. Howling Wilderness. The film by Khavn de la Cruz is anti-history historical film. The film does not only create its new, alternative narrative about a period in what we consider as the Philippine-American war but disregards what we have been told about that period. If you are the kind of person who believes history is the only way we can understand the past (that is, if you need to look back to the past and understand it), and you place the stories of heroes and battles as sacred as your religion, then the film by Khavn is not your film. If you are the man who always has to bring in the ancient fact in order to honor the active present, then “Balangiga” is better ignored. But if you are an individual who refuses to accept the tales according to colonizers, then it is your film. If you have the spirit to be irreverent about the stories in books that tell you about the history of the Filipino nation, by all means revel in the irreverence of this retelling. “Balangiga”, let me correct myself, is not even a retelling than it is an act of faith, a subpoena handed to many of us who are all alleged suspects of nationalism, this thread about a group of islands eager to fight under one flag, and sentimental enough to tear when a song is chanted about how we should die for a nati on, even if that nation is contrived and imagined. But I am running fast from histories. Let me slow down “Balangiga” for Khavn de la Cruz and writers Jerry Gracio and Anchinette Villamor is a story of Kulas and his grandfather running away from the American colonizers, from this General Smith who ordered that all standing should be killed and Samar be turned into a howling wilderness. It is 1901. Nothing of this sort ever appears in our history books. Our great-great grandparents were never imagined as running away from the Americans. In those “historical” accounts that fill books and resounded in public lectures, we were people caught in stasis, unmoving. We, it seems, were dumbfounded. We had limited options the for us during those colonizing years: we stayed put in our little, brown huts and embraced the handsome Americanos; we faced them in combats and those who did became heroes and had their faces turned into bust and their solid figures gracing parks and wildlife; or, we fled and disappeared in howling wilderness we ourselves created. The fleeing from Americanos did not become part of the popular imagination; we reserved the great escapes when the Japanese came. But even that is suspect. Read accounts during the war and discover elites who never left their homes because Filipino elites had always the strength and shamelessness to live and sleep with the enemy, or the colonizers or any force that can give us personal comfort at the expense of this boring act called nation-building. In the case of the Spanish occupation, we lived with them, generated new identities with them, flushed whatever images we had that was not Eurocentric or oriented towards the West. Marvel now at this story called “Balangiga.” It eschews the bells that we – or at least our leaders and the few who knew the story – have been obsessed to bring back to the country. You know, like those jewels of dictators that we preoccupy our planning years to retrieve and recover. What’s with the bells of Balangiga? Accounts tell us that the bells of this church in Balangiga were rung and the sound signaled the attack of the Filipinos to massacre the occupying American forces. From the sound of it, the bells stood for bravery and, if you are American, deceit, and, if you are an army brat, a strategy. But the bells, think of it, were instruments of evangelization, of taming the savage us and making us believers. When this film, “Balangiga” was first screened, there were howls of protests because it lacked authenticity. Where were the bells? Most importantly, why was the film not shot on location, as in the true, howled-out-wilderness of Balangiga? Well, if you go to Balangiga now, do not expect the 1901 plaza to greet you. The place has changed. Like many other places in the world, history did not cause the place to be at a standstill. You crave for authenticity? Go run to the nearest museum and howl. What the film “Balangiga” tries to achieve is to burn in us this passion, this desire greater than the fanciest patriotism, to understand what colonization brings to the ordinary people. The protagonists in the film are two children encountering a landscape littered with dead bodies. History is not about facts and the memorization of the dates of executions and the memorialization of burning of towns and the pillaging of churches. History in the true sense is dealing with dead bodies and making sure we are better than those who caused the chaos. History is about colonization that is not only about outsiders falling upon us but of our own people participating to make sure the enemies were garlanded and transformed into sweet, lovely-faced friends. The rest of colonization is there in our appreciation of white skins and the affair with glutathione. Colonization is us wishing, in the absence of contact lens, we can claim to blue-eyed ancestors so we could celebrate not just friendship with former colonizers but to be entitled to the genes of those who conquered our islands, named the archipelago after wounded saints, first, and then kings, and our old schools, after queens and knights. As for “Balangiga,” the film, it made me think more of how we have remained enslaved to the archives of our colonizers, and h0w a wild, impolite, rabidly trenchant storytelling that does not care about histories and monuments and bells can set us free from lies imposed and kissed as truths. The by-commodity of all this is a film that does not pretend to be responsible to any national goals or historical facts (they contradict each other anyway). As Pauline Kael puts it: “Irresponsibility is part of the pleasure of all art; it is the part the schools cannot recognize.” I rest my historical case.