Saturday, February 16, 2013

El Presidente, a paean to Emilio Aguinaldo

Last 29 December, Carmen Pedrosa wrote in her column in the Philippine Star:

I have to see the film “El Presidente” to know if it does justice to Emilio Aguinaldo, a neglected hero. He offers many lessons to our present leaders. His role in the making of our nation has not been given its rightful place. Among the few who have kept hammering on the issue is Muslim scholar Datu Jamal Ashley Yahya Abbas.
Abbas agrees that revisiting the story of Emilio Aguinaldo is central to the history of the Philippines.
Correcting that mistake may be the key to understanding the complex relations we have with the United States of America today. The elections in 1935 in which Aguinaldo was defeated was probably the first foreign intervention on how we should be led.
“Rehabilitating Aguinaldo is a tall order. Quezon and the Americans had totally destroyed him in the minds of the masses,” Abbas said.
To French journalists on the scene the hero of the Philippine wars of independence against the Americans was General Emilio Aguinaldo. Abbas, who knows French, wrote on those reports.
“Yet Aguinaldo, who became a cause celebre in Europe during his time for daring to fight the American power, had such a bad press in his own country. He died in old age almost in disgrace . . . Rizal wrote only two novels and Bonifacio’s Manila revolt lasted for only about a week or so.
It was Aguinaldo’s army who subdued the Spaniards while the Americans looked on. It was Aguinaldo who proclaimed the Philippine Republic, whose centennial was celebrated with pomp and ceremony. And it was Aguinaldo who led the fight against two-thirds of one of the world’s strongest army at that time,” Abbas wrote. He puts the blame on the Filipino elite (the ilustrados) for reconstructing Philippine history.
The French journalist Gaston Rouvier described Aguinaldo as “even to his enemies, (he is) the greatest man of the Malay race.”
Rouvier wrote: “On May 19, hardly disembarked, Aguinaldo rekindled the embers of revolt across the Luzon provinces, thanks to his untiring work and a kind of magnetic influence which he exercised on his followers. He roused a rebel leader in every district. For the capture of all Spanish garrisons and outposts, he devised a campaign plan. He was Bonaparte, if his admirers were to be believed.”


I went to see the film, and this is what I think of it:

First off, I must say, it is a very good movie in the sense that it is inspiring. This is a much better film than Sakay (1993), a film by Raymond Red, a Cannes Film Festival award winner. Macario Sakay took over the presidency of the Tagalog Republic after Aguinaldo was captured by the Americans.

The almost 3-hour film was a paean to Aguinaldo, which is indeed quite rare in Philippine arts and letters.  The Americans and the first and second generations of Philippine leaders of the post-Aguinaldo Republic made sure that Aguinaldo would have a disreputable image.

The portrayal of Andres Bonifacio was quite good. He was shown in a very good light.  In the film, during the Tejeros convention, Bonifacio declared that he wanted a Republican form of government. Although, in real life, Aguinaldo described Bonifacio as a monarchist and Bonifacio allowed others to call him Hari ng Bayan. Bonifacio was fittingly portrayed as a tragic hero.

However, I do not like the demonization of Gen. Antonio Luna. Gen. Antonio Luna was the greatest Filipino general during the Philippine-American war. He was the only general who had formal studies in military science. As I wrote before, there is no use in debunking one’s heroes.


The films owes a lot to the musical score. The scoring insures an emotional response from the audience. It is the musical scoring, more than anything else, that gave the film a “bigger than life” aspect.

As with most, if not all period films in the country, the costumes are usually inaccurate and ill-fitting. Most of the characters wore over-sized shirts and coats.

The make-up is quite horrible. “Inang Bayan” (Mother Country) appears as an ancient lady. But she looked like a young lady with whitened hair and caked mud spread all over her face and neck.

Even the male characters have funny make-up. I don’t know if Ronnie Lazaro and Christopher De Leon were made-up to look younger or older. They should have been made up to look younger but it seems like they look even older.


The Philippine Revolution was led and participated by YOUNG PEOPLE. Aguinaldo was 28 years old when he was elected President of the Republic.  Antonio Luna was 32 when he was assassinated.  But in the film, practically everyone was old.

Felipe Buencamino, Sr. was around 50 years old at that time but he is portrayed in the film by a septuagenarian (Joonee Gamboa). Incidentally, the film insinuates that Buencamino engineered the death of Luna.  I wonder what made the writer/director think that. Did he get that from the relatives of Aguinaldo? Or does he simply dislike Buencamino? It is funny that in the film, Buencamino accused Luna of siding with the Spaniards at the start of the revolution when in reality, it was Buencamino who sided with the Spaniards at the start of the revolution.

I do not understand the logic in getting old actors to portray young heroes. Aren’t there younger actors who have box-office power? There is a world of difference between young people agitating and fighting for their rights and for Freedom and older/mature people fighting for the same. The impact on the younger Filipinos of today would be so different.


Does it give justice to Aguinaldo? It does.  But giving justice to Aguinaldo should not mean giving injustice to others like Antonio Luna.

Artistically or creatively, there is still so much room for improvement. The scene with a 94-year-old Aguinaldo waiving the Philippine flag in his balcony with a few people outside watching him and his aging wife shouting “Mabuhay si Miyong” or some such thing looks quite pathetic.  It would have been better if the scene was of President Macapagal declaring June 12 as the country’s Independence day with the ailing Aguinaldo in attendance – 64 years after Aguinaldo proclaimed Independence in Kawit, Cavite. Better if there is actual film footage of the event.

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