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It's too easy to make fun of El Presidente: General Emilio Aguinaldo Story and the First Philippine Republic. This historical movie may not be as bad as Carlo J. Caparas' Tirad Pass: The Last Stand of General Gregorio del Pilar, but from hereon we shall be leery of any movie title containing a colon.
Jeorge "E.R." Estregan acquits himself in the role of Aguinaldo, though it helps that he is a sea of calm in a storm of overacting. Baron Geisler's cartoonish Spanish officer (kilay acting) looks set to seize the bad acting award despite fierce competition from John Regala's Spanish friar (bangs acting), and from William Martinez's revolutionary general who seems to be possessed by Enchong Dee's beard from The Strangers (balbas acting). And then Christopher de Leon's Antonio Luna rides in to show them how it's done (bigote acting).
In the spirit of authenticity much of the dialogue is in phonetic Spanish, delivered haltingly and with an eyebrow raised, contravida style. The photography is in a washed-out blue that gives the actors a corpse-like pallor, and slow motion is overused in the big battle scenes. So far, so MMFF - and then we heard the comments from several people in the audience.
"Salbahe pala si Andres Bonifacio."
Mark Meily's film El Presidente would have viewers believe that Andres Bonifacio, Supremo of the Katipunan, was a traitor who was plotting against the revolutionary government. Naturally the film would take Aguinaldo's side, being a biopic whose primary source, cited in the credits, is Aguinaldo's memoirs. Writer-director Meily’s avowed intention is to clear up the misconceptions surrounding this controversial figure. I do not doubt Meily's sincerity, but I have a problem with his history.
Like our grade school textbooks, El Presidente oversimplifies the facts. It is correct in its general outlines: elections were held in Tejeros, presided over by the visiting Supremo (Cesar Montano, who now has the distinction of having played Rizal and Bonifacio). Aguinaldo was voted in as president in absentia; Bonifacio got the consuelo de bobo post of Director of the Interior. Then Daniel Tirona rose to question Bonifacio's credentials in a most insulting manner, saying that the position required a lawyer and not a mere laborer from Tondo. Bonifacio lost his temper, drew his gun on Tirona, declared the elections null and void, and stormed out of the room.
Historians have long noted Bonifacio's foul temper and his unwise decision to encroach on Aguinaldo’s territory. (I am citing Bones of Contention: The Bonifacio Lectures by Ambeth R. Ocampo, who cites Apolinario Mabini's La Revolucion Filipina and other sources.) The movie goes further, painting Bonifacio as a man who would betray the Revolution he started. In one scene Aguinaldo himself overhears Bonifacio and his supporters planning to spread false news of his arrest. In another, Artemio Ricarte (Ian de Leon) on Bonifacio's orders sends reinforcements away so that Aguinaldo's men are defeated by the Spanish.
The movie tells us that when Aguinaldo's men arrested Bonifacio, he resisted, fought back action movie-style, and wounded some men before he was brought down. But the record of Bonifacio's military trial tells a different story. Aguinaldo's officers, led by Colonel Agapito Bonzon a.k.a. Col. Yntong, had been received by Bonifacio as friends. They were offered breakfast and cigarettes before they left. The following day Col. Yntong and his men returned, firing their weapons and accusing Bonifacio of planning to take off with the revolution’s money. The slander seemed calculated to set off Bonifacio’s temper. When it didn't work, Bonifacio was shot in the shoulder. As he fell, someone stabbed him in the throat.
This does not seem to be the act of someone obeying orders to take the Supremo alive. The arresting officers claimed that the Bonifacio brothers had shot first, but when Bonifacio's revolver was examined, all the bullets were intact.
It gets uglier. After Bonifacio's arrest, Col. Yntong and his men captured Mrs. Bonifacio, Gregoria de Jesus. Col. Yntong ordered her beaten until she revealed the whereabouts of the money she'd allegedly hidden. The soldiers refused to obey, whereupon Col. Yntong forced her into an empty house with the intention of raping her to further humiliate the wounded Supremo.
Yes, this is the Bonifacios' testimony, but as Teodoro Agoncillo said, Why did Aguinaldo never order an investigation into the charges against Col. Yntong?
The attempted rape is not mentioned in the movie. However, in the epilogue, we are told that during the election in Tejeros, Aguinaldo's supporters were away fighting so most of the people present were Bonifacio's men. (Historical accounts say otherwise.) It's not enough that he lost the election; his own supporters rejected him. Nothing is said in Bonifacio's defense, but the movie feels compelled to keep defending Aguinaldo long after he has won. He repeatedly declares that he had "no choice" but to act as he did. El Presidente does Emilio Aguinaldo a disservice by portraying him as a victim of circumstance.
Even if this movie is from Aguinaldo's point of view, the goal should be the truth. We are talking about Bonifacio, the hero who started the Revolution. If you must unmask him as a traitor, you had better have irrefutable proof other than some shifty looks from Cesar Montano.
At times the history is merely sloppy - Jose Rizal's imprisonment at Fort Santiago is mentioned casually, but his execution is ignored altogether. The long sequence of events from the Pact of Biak-na-Bato to the Philippine-American War is rushed through, presented in a series of meetings where we hear the contents of various documents. The Declaration of the Republic of the Philippines on June 12, 1898, surely the apex of President Aguinaldo's career, is treated in a perfunctory manner.
Though it is heartening to see history as a subject for popular culture, El Presidente exemplifies what ails our nation. We have amnesia. We choose to forget the inconvenient past in the name of "moving on". We edit history for general patronage. We reduce history to names and dates - as Ocampo points out, we enjoy the non-working holiday on Bonifacio's birthday, but we never come to terms with his role in Philippine history. The disturbing reality is that the man who started the revolution against Spain was killed by his own countrymen. El Presidente sanitizes history some more by saying that on some level, he deserved it.