History in the double-edged lens of the cinema

Creating a historical film is like wielding a double-edged sword. You can tackle the nation’s relationship with its past and provide a new perspective in viewing it through accurate representations. Or, you can be putting lies on people’s minds and completely alter their memories of history.  

These kinds of films have sparked criticism and intense political debates throughout the years over the limits of historical dramatization and its power to influence the views of its audiences. A psychological study notes that learning history through watching blockbuster films can make or break students’ understanding of the past. They found that historical movies can increase retention of accurate information by 50% relative to just reading it out of the textbook. However, due to inaccuracies in most historical movies, as records and facts are also deliberately changed to incorporate new narrative and ideological themes, it can be difficult for them to distinguish between reality and fiction. These observations also reflect the doubts and misconceptions that the wider population develops as they get exposed to some historical films.

Today, as the new Marcos regime assumes power over the country, false narratives about what happened in the Philippines during the old Marcos dictatorship are deliberately propagated. They are using different means to change the truth about their family little by little, year after year. Their propaganda further transcends to another medium where they can cement their version of history onto the minds of the Filipinos— the limelight of the cinema and entertainment industry. 

Marcoses’ return to the spotlight

“History is like chismis”. This is a recent controversial remark made by actress Ella Cruz that stirs up a lot of debate both online and offline. She defended this by stating that ‘history has biases, therefore she is willing to accept other people’s opinions and narratives because everyone has a right to their interpretation of events.’ This came from her attempt to justify the issue of historical revisionism in the recent propaganda film Maid in Malacañang where she played Irene Marcos.

The mentioned controversial film depicts the Marcoses’ last three days in the palace before they were ousted during the EDSA revolution. In the movie, they are portrayed as victims who were “wrongly” deposed from their positions. According to controversial content creator Darryl Yap, this is based on the story told by a “reliable source” which until now remains unnamed. 

The Marcoses are directly behind the film since Sen. Imee Marcos is one of the executive and creative producers. She insisted that the film was in fact “a work of truth” and continuously labeled it as accurate and historically correct. But when the film’s promotion was initially made public, it drew immediate backlash, particularly from historians and academics.

The first claim to be debunked as a myth and labeled as overdramatization of the movie is that a scene in the trailer shows people marching at the entrance of Malacanang during the People Power carrying torches. There is no historical documentation or proof that those who rallied in the palace had torches.

Another controversial scene is when former President Corazon Aquino sought shelter at the time in the Carmelites Monastery in Cebu. The scene depicts Cory with the nuns, conversely playing mahjong during the time of the ongoing heated rally in EDSA. Carmelite nuns immediately condemned the scene as “malicious and a direct attempt to distort history.”

On the other hand, Yap claims that the scene was just a reflection of the 1988 Mother Jones Magazine story “In the Grotto of the Pink Sisters” written by American journalist Anne Nelson, citing that Aquino and the nuns were mentioned as exposed to mahjong, and he has nothing to apologize for. Later, Nelson, the author herself, clarified that there was no mention of Aquino nor any other nuns playing mahjong at the time and that Yap misunderstood that part.

Moreover, the same pattern of propaganda was manifested in the Marcoses’ last election. At the height of the campaign, the digital page Vincentiments led by Yap released different content where the plot typically involves them exhibiting a heroic side or a victimized narrative. The Len-Len Series, The Exorcism of Len-Len Rose, and The Dummy Returns are some of the contents that are evident attacks on their adversary and former Vice President Leni Robredo. These materials are exploitative as they employed satire and comedy to establish an antagonistic narrative among people toward Robredo, particularly on Marcos Jr.’s allegations that he was cheated on in the 2016 Vice Presidential election.

Beyond the objective of propaganda, this marks a turning point for the entertainment industry to review its position and influence on society. Having VIVA Films, one of the country’s biggest multi-media companies, support and sponsor the production of Maid in Malacañang is a clear example of commercializing the bloody past of the Philippines in the hands of the Marcoses. VIVA with its advertising and media partners, motivated by financial gain, gives the dictator’s family a significant platform to alter history. 

This partnership demonstrates how Marcoses use their influence over the distribution of consumable media to cloud the public memories of its atrocities and to legitimize their return to power.

Dictator’s narratives

Maid in Malacañang” is not the first movie that manifests the weaponization of the film industry by the Marcoses. The dictator himself, Marcos Sr. had a history of using not just film but art and culture as a vehicle for propaganda.

In 1965, Iginuhit ng Tadhana: The Ferdinand E. Marcos Story was released during the campaign for the 1965 Presidential Election. The film focuses on the murder case of Julio Nalundasan, a political rival of the father of Marcos Sr. in Ilocos Norte. Marcos Sr. was convicted in the said case but was acquitted by the Supreme Court in 1940. It is a propaganda film in response to the sentiment of then-incumbent President Diosdado Macapagal that Marcos Sr. is a convicted murderer and not suited for office. Marcos Sr. won against Macapagal in that election. 

In 1969, a sequel to the first film, Pinagbuklod ng Langit (Heaven’s Fate) was released before the 1969 Presidential Election, Marcos Sr.’s second term. A version of Imelda and Marcos Sr.’s love story is depicted in the movie, along with the lifestyle of the Marcoses at Malacañang. The movie intends to boost their prominence as the country’s first family. Again, Marcos Sr. won in that election.

These films are made to build false narratives and lies for their gain. It is also evident that these films have benefited the family in their electoral pursuits. It is made to portray the so-called bravery or victimhood of a specific personality (particularly those who need to maintain a positive public image) to produce fake historical memories that can direct to more political mythmaking.  

Additionally, Imelda made the beautification of Manila popular under the Marcos Sr. administration. This entails several ambitious buildings and often cultural projects. This includes the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP), the Philippine High School for the Arts (PHSA), and the infamous Manila Film Center, where an estimated 169 people perished in a catastrophe and were buried in cement. The construction continued despite the disaster because of the anticipated Manila International Film Festival. These demonstrate how the Marcoses have always hidden their horrors from the public under a façade of art for their grandeur.

Resistance amid propaganda

Despite the Marcoses’ numerous attempts to clear their name using their power, public opposition is stronger than ever. For decades, the tale of struggle and resistance given by martial law victims has been debunking dictators’ false narratives.

Mainstream films that became popular in discussing the Marcos regime include Dekada ‘70 directed by Chito Roño and written by Lualhati Bautista which tackles the struggle of a middle-class family under the period of martial law, Joel Lamangan’s Dukot (Desaparecidos), one of the political prisoners during the time give tribute to those who disappeared and suffered abuse under the regime, and Ishmael Bernal’s Manila by Night that depicts the underlying image of Manila- intense poverty, unemployment, prostitution and drug addiction against the conventional glorified portrayal of Marcoses to the city.

In addition, documentaries and other independent films have also been released throughout the recent decade to counter the gradual comeback of the Marcoses into power. This includes Lav Diaz’s Imelda and Lauren Greenfield’s Kingmaker.

Contemporary films Liway by Kip Oebanda, Ang Mga Alingawngaw sa Panahon ng Pagpapasya by Hector Calma, and the recent film Katips by Vincent Tañada show the perspective of the militant struggle of anti-Marcos groups and student activists during the widespread militarization imposed by the regime. Lastly, Portrait of Mosquito Press by JL Burgos focuses on the censorship and oppression of the press media during the height of the Marcos dictatorship.

Every single scene in a propaganda film can alter history and polarize society. But, as long as we resist historical distortion, we can still fight against the injustices of the system. 

Producing art that resonates with the fundamental issue of the masses is a greater challenge for artists today, especially when the role of art in society is still limited to counter propaganda. As a result, we must engage with our communities more and support the efforts of progressive organizations and local artists to strengthen pride in movement, activism, and art.

Historical films are revealed to be weaponized by those in power to translate specific agendas, but they can also be a powerful tool to fight against them. Being a critical audience is more crucial than ever as we progress to the era of disinformation. Reality and popular expectations can be warped by cinema, blurring the boundaries between what is fact and fiction. 

We must remain true to our ideals and core values backed by the facts. We should not forget the true memories of our past even in those darkest moments. In the end, it is our nation’s collective memory of history that still matters. [P]

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