In the 1990s the Philippines witnessed the closure of two big American Military facilities. The negotiations and talks for its expulsion took decades. This only represents the superpower’s ferocious strength and it slowly crumbling relationship with the ex-colony.
Minsan isang Gamu-gamo is a film by Lupita A. Kashiwara made in 1976 at the height of the Marcos dictatorial government, this film was made to bravely challenge the imagined US benevolence. This long-lived fantasy of “benevolence” has been circulating the country since 1898 through President William McKinley’s declaration of the “Benevolent Assimilation Proclamation”. The Americans claimed and assumed control in the Philippines, “not as invaders or conquerors, but as friends, to protect the natives in their homes, in their employments, and in their personal and religious rights… and to bestow the reward of its support and protection … substituting the mild sway of justice and right for arbitrary rule” (Benevolent Assimilation, italics mine, 1898). Colonialism in the Philippines formally ended when Independence was bestowed in the country on July 4, 1946, however, continued US influence and presence still remained in the country. Historically, the promise of benevolence by the Americans lingered even after independence was bestowed in the country due to the communism threats to the Southeast Asian threats to our democracy. This time, the anti-communist stance is the theme of the Americas benevolence in addition to continued aid that will stimulate political and economic dependency.
During the Marcos regime, media including film was subjected to strict censure by the Marcos technocrats. The activists in the film industry joined the clamor for political change and stories about activities on the American bases and the injustices are often depicted on films: examples are the plights of the prostitutes, rape victims and fate of curious trespassers in the base area.
The film’s theme focuses on the close relationship of the Philippines to the United States that turned grim when one injustice after another is committed against the Filipinos by the members of US military bases. A Filipina nurse, Corazon dela Cruz played by Nora Aunor dreamed of working in the US but all her dreams were withdrawn when tragedy hits her family. Their family lived just outside the US naval base in Capas, Tarlac. For a long time her family and friends turned blind to the abuses committed by US military personnel due to the sustained livelihood the US Military Base bring to their community. This is until their lives become knotted with events they could no longer ignore. Several children playing near the American territory in Capas, Tarlac called Crow Valley were shot by military men. Her future-mother-in-law, Yolanda was wrongly accused for theft by a power tripping and jealous Filipina merchandise control guard in the base due to Yolanda’s friendship with an American serviceman. She humiliates her and instead of getting justice from the suit she filed, she was threatened and was forced to drop her complaint later on.
In all these events, Corazon silently watched and restrained her thoughts, all because of her “American dream”. But the worst is yet to come, on the eve of her departure for the US, her younger brother Carlito was shot and killed by a trigger-happy American soldier while playing at the dumpsite near the base. According to the American GI he mistook the kid for a wild boar. He was abruptly sent back to the US because his mission contract in the Philippines has ended. American representatives offered dollars to compensate for her brother’s death. Corazon rejected the compensation from the Americans. She decided not to leave for America, and stay to fight for the cause of her slain brother.
The film’s release is anything but timely for the events in 1976. In that same year, the stipulations in the Military Bases Agreements were amended. It was no longer based on the “sentimental ties” but on “mutual respect” for each other’s national interest. Thus, the military and economic agreements between U.S. and the Philippines were amended to reflect this new relationship. The amendments to the RP-U.S. Military Bases Agreement of 1947, the U.S. acknowledged the sovereignty of the Philippines over the American military bases in the country (Subic and Clark). These bases would have a Filipino commander and would fly the Philippine flag. In addition, the U.S agreed to pay rentals to the Philippines for the use of the bases.
The film echoes a strong message of nationalism, but aside from that it also boasts a strong feminist background. Beginning with Lupita A. Kashiwara as the film director, she bravely tackled the problem of America’s “special relationship” with the Philippines right on target. Filmmaker Lupita worked closely with Marina Feleo-Gonzales to construct the character of Corazon an empowered Filipina nurse set to conquer her dreams to help her family. She is a strong-willed person that is well-loved by her family and friends. Corazon’s character is embedded with several feminism texts blended with Filipina traits, a doting daughter to her parent, grandfather and brother, obedient and kind, she is opinionated but guarded in expressing her nationalist ideals and when the unfortunate event comes that a foreigner murdered her brother, she dared the colonial power by chasing after the murderer to find justice for her brother. The death of her brother served as the catalyst towards the emancipation of her ideals. Moreover, the female lead was magnificently played by Nora Aunor.
The film problematized the distinction of possessing “actual” sovereignty and the “appearance” of sovereignty. For them living near the bases, there is not much distinction, it’s one of the same thing. Minsan Isang Gamu-gamu draws up this nationalist dilemma of imagined sovereignty. In the film, sovereignty is severely compromised that it could not be represented with dignity proper to an independent republic. This motif can be represented in selected film highlights that I will discuss.
Corazon, hurriedly tried to learn the national dance, tinikling. This ushered what arguably the film’s most dramatic scene. Corazon dancing the tinikling and the singing of kundiman is a performance that invokes national identity. This invocation is presented in the earlier part of the film where travel agent, Leo Martinez advised her to learn how to cook adobo and pancit, learn kundiman songs and be able to dance the tinikling. The reasoning, since she is on an exchange- visitor program she might be called upon to perform her cultural identity in one of the programs. So in her farewell party, Corazon belts out with patriotism a kundiman song to her guests in her despedida party and as insisted by her friends she learned the steps in tinikling. This blissful scene represents an act of nationalist expression.
On the other hand, her brother Carlito is about to perform his own act of nationalist expression. He will fly a kite over the American territory, the Crow Valley. Incidentally, his kite is made of flimsy bamboo sticks that carry the color of the Philippine flag, that is red, white and blue. Symbolically, this flying kite scene can be historically parallel to the Emilio Aguinaldo’s waving of the Philippine flag in Kawit, Cavite. It may be recalled that Aguinaldos’ showing and waving of the Philippines flag is assertion of self-determination for the American’s to recognize our Philippine independence.
The director creates a juxtaposition of the tinikling and the kite flying scenes as it was shown as the fated moments of the film. Corazon tried to skip in and out of the bamboo poles and when she miscalculated the rhythm her leg is caught between the poles at precisely the same time Carlito was shot by the American sentry in Crow Valley. The juxtaposition of these texts can be deduced in several cultural conflicts that existed in the base. The clashing of the poles can be represented as the conflict between the Filipinos and the Americans reaching in an agreement according to the full respect of the Philippine sovereignty.
The issue of benevolence of the foreign imperialist was questioned in two scenes in the movie. First is the tinikling dance, although not implied can also be read as Corozon’s dilemma- the excellent performance of Nora Aunor’s can be inferred that she is conflicted with the benevolence of the US for giving her a chance to work in an exchange- visitor program at the same time confronted with violence caused by the Americans in her homeland. Second is Inkong Menciong’s reflection, Corazon’s grandfather (played by Paquito Salcedo), having lived most of his life under the colonist /imperialist rule is the only one who vehemently condemn the presence of the Americans. Inkong Menciong narrated how the American planes flying over Crow Valley released bombs that killed the children scavenging the site. During the funeral procession, for the young scavengers, Inkong’s World War II memories were triggered. He relived the infamous death march that began in his hometown in Capas, Tarlac. He sadly recalls how the solidarity of the Filipinos and Americans in the face of another foreigners brutality. This past memories was depicted by inserting footages of World War II particularly images of the Death March in the funeral scene. While the footage was shown Inkong was caught thinking out loud his thoughts, “Hindi ko maintindihan ang mga Amerikano, kaaway ba sila o kakampi?” Inkong’s realization, in the context of the dead children’s plight, the death march has lost its heroic meaning.
The increasing reach of American’ sovereignty and power was further heightened in the scene where Inkong was watching the landing of American astronauts in the moon as shown live on television. In a voice of defeat he asked, “Corazon do they also own the moon now?” This aggravates his sense of outrage and helplessness over the strength of America, his enigmatic friend and foe.
Towards the end of the film, the audience was treated with a peculiar reversal of fate, a native woman who fights back on behalf of the weakened men. Her power was a chance given by the imperialist who established a nursing school in the country. Despite her leverage, she was confronted again with another dilemma. In the final scene, an American serviceman in a speeding motorcycle overtakes and collided with a a jeepney. Highlighting her medical background, her lawyer announced, “Please let us pass, there is a nurse here.” Corazon was seen here looming over the injured serviceman leaving the audience to think whether she will be compelled to show “benevolence” even if she is incapable of doing so after all that has happened. The audience was left to contemplate whether Corazon will show the Americans the real meaning of benevolence.