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With ‘El Presidente’, Mark Meilly depicts Aguinaldo-Bonifacio conflict in accurate detail

Jeorge 'E.R.' Ejercito as Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo in a battle scene from 'El Presidente'.

Before agreeing to do the film, Meily admits that his perception of Emilio Aguinaldo is that of the man infamous for having Bonifacio killed. Along with interviews, his research based on several sources, including Aguinaldo’s own memoirs and books written by former Secretary of Education Onofre D. Corpuz, revealed that there’s more to this simplistic and sweeping generalization.

“I’m from UP so like many so many others who went there, ‘yun ang nakalakihan kong paniniwala, na si Aguinaldo ang nagpapatay kay Bonifacio. Based on my research and interviews, iba ‘yung lumabas,” he said. “The first was that Aguinaldo’s greatest weakness was that he tried to please everybody. In the film, we tried to show that even back then, Philippine politics was not much different from what it is now.”

Also, contrary to popular belief, Aguinaldo was not even present when he was elected president of the reorganized revolutionary government when the Tejeros Convention took place. He was still fighting Spanish troops in the Battle of Pasong Santol.

“At the time of the Tejeros Convention, Bonifacio was beginning to become unpopular even with his own faction, the Magdiwangs, because of his losing record in several battles, including Balintawak and Pinaglabanan,” Meily pointed out.

The filmmaker concedes that Bonifacio was a patriot and freedom fighter whose heart was in the right place. “But he was not a military strategist, he was perceived to be reckless and a hothead by his own group who did not want to elect a leader who kept losing his battles,” Meily added.

Disputing Bonifacio’s claim that the election was rigged in favor of the Magdalos, Meily pointed out that outside of Aguinaldo, the rest of the elected officials of the revolutionary government, namely Mariano Trias, Artemio Ricarte and even Bonifacio himself, who was initially made Director of the Interior, were all from the Magdiwang group.

“The truth was Bonifacio declared that election null and void because he wanted to establish his own revolutionary government where he will be president,” Meily declared.

The depiction of Bonifacio in “El Presidente” is so different from the martyr-like figure presented in films like “Ang Paglilitis ni Andres Bonifacio” and “Supremo” that students and history buffs may be shocked at his rather villainous characterization in the film.

“Galit si Bonifacio sa mga kastila. Nung iniwan ng mga grupo nina Aguinaldo ang tatlong paring Kastila sa custody nina Bonifacio para balikan later, pinapatay nila ‘yung mga kastila kahit wala naman silang kinalaman sa giyera nung time na ‘yun. And then there was a time na sinunog naman nila Bonifacio ang mga bahay at simbahan sa Indang.”

Meily shot “El Presidente” in 43 days in key historical locations in the provinces of Bataan, Cavite, Bulacan and Laguna. Although the movie covers Aguinaldo’s life from his childhood to his death in 1964, he expects a lot of people to particularly discuss and even debate the episodes involving Bonifacio.

“They were friends who had mutual respect for each other. Aguinaldo recognized that the revolution was initiated by Bonifacio while Bonifacio had a very high regard for Aguinaldo’s leadership abilities. He never wanted Bonifacio killed, he just wanted him banished but he was ultimately prevailed upon by his generals to sign the execution”.

While Meily did not go as far as saying that Bonifacio’s execution was a necessary evil at the time, he did acknowledge that at least one of The Supremo’s own biographers conceded that “the revolution would not succeed with Bonifacio at its forefront”.

“When we set out to make the film, my intention is to merely inform and entertain. I had no illusions of changing history or anything like that but if I somehow presented anything different from what people already know, then I guess that’s the consequence of my research.”

So how does Direk Mark feel about the finished product? Will he still want to make another historical film after it?

“Let me put it this way, when I was editing ‘Baler’, there were times that I fell asleep. Imagine, nakakatulog ako sa pag-edit ng sarili kong pelikula. That’s not the case with ‘El Presidente’, I really have a good feeling about this.”