Philippine arts

‘Heneral Luna’: Para sa bayan o sarili?

Leni Velasco
Heneral Luna may actually be just what we need to finally find the heroes of our times

What makes a hero?


Heroism seems absurd in this time of hashtags and Facebook memes. In fact, calling someone a hero is to invite mockery, sarcasm and insult. So here we are now, living in a time we desperately need one.


More often than not, we associate heroes with monuments  – those cold structures intended to pay homage to the person whose heroic act made a contribution in our nation’s history. If monuments are the measure of how we value our heroes then one can only look at the Bonifacio Shrine in Caloocan, the Bantayog ng Mga Bayani in Quezon Avenue and the Rizal Monument in Luneta. That is the sad state of heroism in our country – often ignored and neglected.


Sometimes, monuments take other forms. In the recent years, we have seen a steady influx of films featuring our heroes – from ER Ejercito’s El Presidente to the Robin Padilla starrer, Bonifacio: Ang Unang Pangulo. While the power of cinema as an art form can tremendously influence its audience, if we are to measure the success of these hero films to this generation of millennials then maybe, it have failed miserably. All that resonates are all those annoying “pabebe” viral videos, Vice Ganda and #AlDub that seemed to take over our national consciousness.

MODERN HERO? Relearning the life and times of Heneral Luna through a new film about him. Photo from Dakila  

We are a nation of heroic people but we are easily destroyed by our own pessimism and apathy. We often look for heroes that will save us from our own destruction – saviors of the world willing to sacrifice their lives for their country. We subscribe to the western concept of heroes – mythical beings with superpowers.  So here we are, waiting again for a hero to save the day. In this age where information travels in a speed of light, connections are boundless and communication knows no end, the textbook hero we are looking for may not be actually the hero we need today.


History gives us another opportunity to learn from its lessons through Jerrold Tarog’s epic film masterpiece, Heneral Luna. It is your typical historical film only with your non-stereotypical hero. It aspires what El Presidente and Bonifacio aspired only the production team of Luna nailed it better. It does not have an ER Ejercito and a Robin Padilla. What it has are the brilliant portrayal of actor John Arcilla as Heneral Luna and a steady solid support of actors – both old and new. It does not have the frills of a Star Cinema PR machinery but it has cemented the support of history aficionados hungry for a good historical film; educators searching for good materials to use for teaching; and students fed up with the usual film garbage big producers feed.


Heneral Luna may actually be just what we need to finally find the heroes of our times. The film breaks the idea of a hero – the monument hero by presenting Luna’s flaws that essentially is his humanity. In the film, we are presented with Luna – isang bida na kontrabida. A character far from the good boy Rizal or the underdog Bonifacio, far from the image of heroes most of us learned from textbooks.


The film disturbs the idea of heroism – bayan o sarili? Is it really the question of our generation? Do we really have to choose between our country and ourselves? Or is it not that what we actually do for our country is also for ourselves? And what we do with our individual lives also serves the general interest of our country?                 


The film questions the idea of nationhood. Ano nga ba ang bayan? A very relevant question that continues to haunt our nation – in the context of the prevailing regionalist attitude, the struggle of the Bangsamoro people for their identity, and the vast labor migration of Pinoys all over the world.  Sino nga ba ang Bayan?

SALUTE. Davao participants of a lecture on Heneral Luna. Photo by Dakila  

In the past three months, Heneral Luna embarked on a journey together with the advocacy group, Dakila – sparking a conversation on heroism among Filipino youth. Traveling to 40 schools nationwide from Ilocos Norte to Davao and reaching 22,000 audiences to show a preview of the film and bringing along historians to present history and heroism through a pop culture inspired lecture, I have witnessed how millennials responded. Surprisingly, listening to a 45-minute lecture on historical facts and trivia did not bore them. In fact, they eagerly learned about Antonio Luna and his friends – Jose, Andres, Marcelo and Juan. They reacted enthusiastically to the 15-minute preview of the film – laughing at Heneral Luna’s antics and of course, screaming every time Paolo Avelino as Gregorio del Pilar appears in the screen even if he appears only for a fraction of a second. I believe Heneral Luna hits the spot – bringing the millennials along for the ride in the shared universe it created just like how Marvel did it with Avengers.


Heneral Luna ushered the millennials in the unfamiliar world of Luna, Rizal, Bonifacio, Aguinaldo and Mabini and placed them right at the center of it. The film does not dictate. It questions. And perhaps, that is probably its greatest contribution – to ask the difficult question. That probably, this is where we have failed miserably in igniting heroism among our citizens. We have forgotten to ask, to make them think on their own, and let them define what heroism is in this generation.


Luna and his friends have a visible enemy and war is upon them. In our time, we face a multitude of enemies, not often visible but nonetheless a force that tramples upon the very ideals our forefathers in the Katipunan fought for – kalayaan, kaginhawaan, kasarinlan. The revolution remains unfinished. It waits for the next heroes who will embrace it.


Today, we celebrate National Heroes Day. But is there really much to celebrate? How does a nation really pay homage to its heroes both immortalized and anonymous? Our nation will never start the tedious process to nationhood unless we know our own history, unravel long buried truths and learn from its lessons. The best tribute any Filipino can ever give to our heroes is to continue pursuing their unfinished revolution by taking part in the revolution.


In Dakila, we believe that a hero resides in every one of us. It begins in the mind, with one thought that says it can be done. To do all things with pride and dignity, to learn from the lessons of history, to realize that the deeds of our heroes are not fables but real, breathing examples of how to live our lives.


The challenge for our generation today is not to die for the Philippines but to live for it – because it is in living where we can act and do something to make the country a better place for each Filipino to live in. Today, where the country is faced with multitude of challenges, every little act of courage and selflessness counts, It is no longer “Ang Mamatay Nang Dahil Sa ‘Yo” but it should be “Ang Mabuhay Nang Dahil Sa ‘Yo.”


Heneral Luna will be screened in theaters nationwide on September 9. Not being a mainstream film, there is no guarantee that it will last long enough for you to catch it. We have no illusion that this film can really change Philippine society but perhaps it can change the way you view the world.


After the special screening held in Baguio, the great filmmaker Kidlat Tahimik whispered to me, “When you speak to people who will watch this film in cinemas, tell them, that when they watch this film, recognize the enemy from with in.”


If I may add then I will also tell them that there is a Rizal, Bonifacio, Mabini, Heneral Luna, Leon Kilat, Teresa Magbanua, Edgar Jopson, and Lean Alejandro in every one. 

Lahat tayo ay #LahingDakila –


Leni Velasco is in the middle of all the hullaballoo in Dakila – Philippine Collective for Modern Heroism as its Executive Director. She co-founded Dakila with Lourd de Veyra, Ronnie Lazaro, Buwi Meneses, Noel Cabangon and the late comedian, Tado. 

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