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Monday, September 16, 2019

Maglana: After the film Heneral Luna, now what?

THE film Heneral Luna co-written, directed, scored and edited by Jerrold Tarog created quite a stir. Its cinematic merits and its presentation of crucial events in Philippine history using as lens the life of Gen. Antonio Luna generated such reaction that a campaign was started to keep the indie film in mainstream movie theaters, and a few schools included it in their learning activities.

The social network communities had a field day discussing the film, the characters and related topics. Last time I viewed my feeds, a Facebook friend admitted to not being able to resist what I would term ethnic pride, and shared historical tidbits about Ilonggos who contributed to the struggle against Spanish and American colonizers.

This renewed interest in Philippine history included a strand that critiqued history the way it has been taught in the country's educational system. Going by online commentary, many expressed disappointment that the classroom lessons and the history books they were exposed to did not provide a more comprehensive and critical reading of Philippine historical events, particularly those around the Katipunan and the efforts at self-governance in the late 1800s and the early 1900s.

Many confessed ignorance about the conflicts within the Aguinaldo-led cabinet, and the dynamics concerning dealings with the Americans.

But the complaint that mainstream historical learning centered mostly on events, names, venues, and dates is not exclusive to the Philippines. Unless the material is a critique, in general formal written historical accounts around the world tend to support routine memorization of key proceedings, people, places and periods, and thus endorsing the status quo.

Indeed, historical writings are inherently selective, privileging the view, voice and version of the "victor" as opposed to the "vanquished", or of the central as opposed to those at the fringes. How many books are there about Philippine history that is written from the perspective of people in the Visayas and Mindanao, and which have become standard texts in classroom discussions, for example?

Certainly not an easy option in an educational system that has been described by Prof. Macrina Morados of the University of the Philippines as dominated by Western influences that have displaced indigenous and local knowledge.

Texts are spotlights, highlighting only what is deemed "worthy" or "relevant", which are often explanatory or outright endorsements of the prevailing situation, while leaving other details out or shrouded in darkness. For instance, have we encountered perspectives about the "Moro raids" other than these were done by Muslim tribes to capture slaves from target communities in Visayas and Mindanao, and the "pangayao" practice of Lumads other than these are attacks that they launch against declared enemies? These unexplored and unexplained bits in historical texts have fueled fear of Muslims and a low regard for Mindanao indigenous peoples across generations.

The demand that dominant Philippine narratives be re-written, and that more books that provide other perspectives about Philippine histories be produced is thus warranted.

But why call to question only written texts? What about our social memory--what we remember and say--of the years when Filipinos struggled against, tried our hand at self-rule, and also transitioned from one colonial power to another?

Nigel Rapport and Joanna Overing (2003) saw memory as a "lasting chronicle (not without its gaps or lacunae) of the temporal course of experience", thus establishing memory's importance to individual and group existence. The social experience of memory is vital because as Brian Campbell citing Maurice Halbwachs said "a group with no memory is no group at all".

Social memory is not an isolated practice, if Paul Connerton (1989) were to be believed it is "pervasive [...] in the conduct of everyday life". It is manifested in the stories that we tell about ourselves, what we did and what happened to us manifested as written narrative, song, artistic movement and image. It marks the events we commemorate and our bodily practices (Connerton, 1989) such as the way we dress in a given period.
Thus the playful chant of children "Ako si Bonifacio, atapang atao..." is social memory. Raising a clenched fist to register defiance, assertion or courage, as Filipinos are wont to do not only in rallies but even when cheering basketball teams is social memory. Associating the colors yellow and red as colors of defiance post-Marcos dictatorship is social memory.

Historical reconstruction and social memory are inter-related and interacting. Connerton's view is that they are different because historians wield authority and have an inferential approach akin to those used by lawyers when they cross-examine, "extracting from that evidence information which it does not explicitly contain or even which was contrary to the overt assertions contained in it" (1989). Burke on the other hand says the two are the same because social memory is "a convenient piece of shorthand which sums up the rather complex process of selection and interpretation" (Burke, 1989 as cited by Olick and Robins, 1998).

If historical reconstruction and writing are the business of-but not only--historians, then social memory is under the charge of societies. Bellah et. al. as quoted by Olick and Robins (1998) say it succinctly, "a community is involved in retelling its story, its constitutive narrative".

Applying Halbwachs and Bellah et al thus, if a community finds itself cut off from and unable to tell its own stories, then it is not a community at all, but one that is dead, or even exterminated.

When we spend time with our families during declared holidays, do we include in our conversations the history of the holiday? Are stories about Philippine heroes part of the stories that we tell our young? Can we name not only "national" but also local heroes who stood up to oppressors? And now that we know better, when we help our peers process conflict, loyalty and trust, will we bring in narratives about Luna and Aguinaldo?

The successful showing of the film Heneral Luna and the flurry of discussions it generated beg the question "now what?" Challenges about historical writings were previously aired; I propose that we expand them.
Historians and other social scientists can take charge of preparing more historiographies from more views, voices, and locales other than the ones that already dominate existing written texts.

But we as families, groups and communities should take on the multi-dimensional and daily task of refining and expanding our constitutive narrative, our social memories. These memories not only have to be inclusive and give life to a multitude of characters, but also have to be critical and acknowledging of our contradictions and challenges as peoples.

Either we do that or risk forevermore hearing inside our heads the enraged voice of Luna crying "Mga duwag! Mamamatay-tao! Traydor!"

*****

Email feedback to magszmaglana@gmail.com

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