A timeline of Philippine history, as told through cinema

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Raya Martin’s “Independencia” tells the story of a family's struggle amid the American occupation. Still from FILMDOO

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Every time Independence Day rolls around, we get the opportunity to evaluate our nation’s history in light of current events. One way we can rehash the highlights of this history is through cinema: historical films let us trace the timeline of our ancestor’s war on power, helping us link the concept of freedom to revolution.

It seems more important than ever to remind ourselves that the autonomy we enjoy now — voting for our own leaders, operating under a constitutional justice system, voicing our discontent — can be credited to Filipinos who actively contested authority in the past. Flash forward to 2020, and the Anti-Terrorism Bill is threatening to criminalize the very spirit we’re supposed to be celebrating today. Keep that in mind while following this chronological movie guide. Every movie on this list is about resistance, because the story of the Philippines’ birth is a story of protest and dissent. The story of its survival will likely be framed in the same terms.

Photo from GMA FILMS

Propaganda Movement: "José Rizal" (dir. Marilou Diaz-Abaya, 1998)

As many high school history teachers would tell you, this is probably the definitive Rizal movie. Marilou Diaz-Abaya’s “José Rizal” follows the national hero from childhood to death, but most of the film depicts his imprisonment and trial before the Spanish court. After publishing “Noli Me Tángere” and “El Filibusterismo,” two novels that laid bare the corruptions of the Catholic Church and the Spanish colonizers, Rizal was accused of inciting Filipinos to protest, and sentenced to death by firing squad. The film is almost hagiographic in its reverence for our national hero — you’d be hard-pressed to find a human flaw in Cesar Montano’s Rizal — but Diaz-Abaya nonetheless manages to take a story we all know and ignite the kind of patriotism that only comes from being fed up with injustice.

Stream on iFlix.


Philippine Revolution: "Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis" (dir. Lav Diaz, 2016)

Lav Diaz’s surreal meditation on the Philippine Revolution draws from history, literature, and folklore to chart an 8-hour odyssey through the aftermath of Andres Bonifacio’s execution. Bonifacio was killed by Emilio Aguinaldo’s men in 1897 for contesting the results of the Tejeros Convention, which elected Aguinaldo president. Diaz follows Bonifacio’s widow, Gregoria de Jesus, as she searches for her husband’s discarded corpse in the mountains. But the lines between fact and fantasy are blurry: Piolo Pascual and John Lloyd Cruz play Simoun and Isagani, two fictional characters from Rizal's novels. Meanwhile, the tikbalang, a human-horse hybrid from Philippine folklore, is reimagined by actors like Angel Aquino, Cherie Gil, and Bernardo Bernardo.


American Occupation: "Independencia" (dir. Raya Martin, 2009)

In 1898, Spain decided that it was done with the Philippines, and sold it to the United States for $20 million. Many Filipinos were incensed at being passed to a new colonial master, having already suffered three centuries of trauma at the hands of the Spanish. Raya Martin’s “Independencia” imagines a family that evades the Americans by moving to the mountains. Detached from civilization, they grow accustomed to a solitary lifestyle, ostensibly shielded from the violence of society by the dense foliage of the jungle. It’s a historical film in the aesthetic sense as well: Martin shot in the style of early 20th century cinema, with crude editing techniques and a grainy, black-and-white filter that flickers like it’s being unspooled on a projector.

Stream on FilmDoo. Available for Philippine viewers only.

Still from NETFLIX

Philippine-American War: "Goyo: Ang Batang Heneral" (dir. Jerrold Tarog, 2018)

“Goyo” struggles to make its titular character as interesting as the events that surround him. The first act is slower than it needs to be, and the bland romantic subplot feels contrived and unnecessary. That being said, it’s an immersive look into the Philippine-American war, shuttling between the workings of the army and the political dealings that orchestrate the action. The climax of this film, of course, is the Battle of Tirad Pass. In December 1899, General Gregorio del Pilar faced a brigade of 500 Americans with an anemic troop of 60 Filipinos. The goal was to keep the U.S. from catching up with Emilio Aguinaldo, who was retreating deep into the mountains of Ilocos Sur. The odds were never in the Philippines’ favor, and del Pilar died alongside 51 of his men. Aguinaldo, however, successfully evaded capture.

Stream on Netflix.


Japanese Occupation: "Aishite Imasu 1941: Mahal Kita" (dir. Joel Lamangan, 2004)

Mere hours after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Japanese troops invaded the Philippines, then still a U.S. colony. Several underground guerilla movements were created by Filipinos to resist the Japanese, most notably the Hukbalahap. The rebels depicted in “Aishite Imasu” aren’t the Huks: the film’s characters and events are completely fictional, but it does touch on an essential aspect of the guerilla movement in the Philippines: the active presence of women in its ranks. Judy Ann Santos plays Inya, a woman who takes over her husband's role as captain of the armed resistance after he is killed. Her best friend Igna, played by Dennis Trillo, is a trans woman who attracts the fancy of a Japanese commander, eventually agreeing to spy on him on behalf of the guerillas. In real life, female Huks acted as spies, carriers of sensitive messages, and in some cases even took up arms to fight alongside the men.

Stream via iWantTFC