THERE is a lot that we wish the film Bonifacio: Ang Unang Pangulo could have been – a better narrative plot, a stronger link with events of the present, and a less stylized treatment of the visuals. The film shows the promise and skills by the director and cinematographer who almost transforms every scene into a dramatic tableau with the deft use of light and camera movement.
But there is no grand production here that is clear. Just a few locations, an ensemble of good actors and the film’s running time of a little over an hour reveals further the potential of the material if given perhaps larger resources to work with.
And yet, what is interesting is that the film somehow remains effective in reaching out to an audience. In the particular screening that I watched, the theatre was almost full and there was spontaneous applause at the end. There were moments in the film when I was inexplicably touched though it was not emanating directly from what was shown in the screen. Instead, it was in the film’s constructed narratives and images of the past and how they bleed into the familiarity of the events at present more than century later that made it powerful for me and perhaps, others too.
The distinction between Rizal, the more popular and state-sanctioned national hero, and Bonifacio, the working class charismatic organizer who met a tragic fate was also made by the film proving that the controversy regarding who deserves to be regaled as the ultimate representation of the indomitable Filipino spirit remains to be settled.
Unlike Rizal who wrote for the intellectual set here and in Spain, whose handicap was that he was mainly a man of letters, Bonifacio also used the power of words for broadening the secret membership of the Katipunan. It was a message that resonated with the exploited and oppressed not just in Luzon but also to the rest of the islands whose inhabitants have been enduring the yoke of Spanish colonization for the past three hundred years.
Another point of debate that the film delves on is the issue of reform as opposed to revolution that the two heroes separately advocated. For the Katipunan to have established an armed revolutionary organization for total independence against Spain that was national in scope was evidence of the correctness of Bonifacio’s assessment of the zeitgeist of that time. For him to have been murdered by elite leaders from Cavite was not a repudiation of his call for armed revolution but a sad miscalculation of the existing disposition of forces. Even within the revolutionary set of that time, there were those who capitalized on the historical conjuncture for personal and familial gain.
Beyond the dramatic ending of the film and the few spectacular scenes of hand-to-hand combat between the Filipino revolutionaries and Spanish forces, it was the herculean effort to expand the armed resistance that was most poignant. There was a scene in the film when the revolutionaries went from barrio to barrio secretly passing on the manifesto of the Katipunan. In between firm handshakes were whispered utterances that the polyeto was for the shared future of our children.
If the film had a strong subversive message, it was this – our major obstacle in the bloodied but painful path toward nationhood is our own strong family loyalties that compete against the interest of nation-building.
The main strength of the film which some regard also as its major weakness is how it does not provide a complete celluloid universe where all characters and issues raised by the film achieve satisfying resolutions at the end. The documentary feel of the film and how it surfaced various points of debate that should be discussed in the national imaginary may have been necessary. The sad and perplexed feelings that many including me harbored while walking out of the cinema must have been the movie’s desired and meaningful effect.
For more than a century later, the prospect of revolution, of expanding the project of nationalism, and smashing the culture of self-serving family loyalty and patronage, continue to be relevant issues of our time.
The film can be regarded as a fine companion piece to the continuing narrative of the Filipino nation. It is a story that we as a people continue to write through our shared struggle towards nationhood with the ghost of Bonifacio and his story of gallantry and tragic death through betrayal as important guideposts. I am glad that slowly but surely, anonymous good sons and daughters of the nation have been heeding the lessons of his heroic but tragic life and continuing his unfinished revolution for the past forty-six years.