Shame and pride: A millennial’s take on Heneral Luna

'Heneral Luna made me experience something for the first time ever – it made me feel both proud and ashamed to be Filipino'


Last Monday, coincidentally on the anniversary of Martial Law, I finally got to watch Heneral Luna—the local film that’s been storming the Filipino social media world since its release in theaters. For over a week, my newsfeed has been filled with nothing but posts and statuses of how grand the movie was, shares and links of news articles that reviewed the film, and even a circulating petition to keep it in the cinema houses when threatened it would be stopped from being showed.

And, as if the consensus of the general public on social media on the film wasn’t enough, a few hours before the 8:30 pm show that I was scheduled to watch, news broke out that it just got accepted as the Philippine entry for the 2016 Oscars.

Given the series of events, I could not bring myself to have had higher expectations for a local film. It was for this reason that I was utterly worried that I was going to be disappointed. I was worried it wouldn’t live up to its hype.

I was wrong. Within just 5 minutes into the film, I was proven dead wrong. I spent days trying to process why the film struck a chord in me so strongly, and I ended up counting so many reasons why it did. 

But, out of all them, the one that seems to have hit me the hardest was this one: Heneral Luna made me experience something for the first time ever – it made me feel both proud and ashamed to be Filipino. And, I cannot recall any experience in my lifetime that’s allowed me to feel anything closely similar.

Filipino shame and pride

Now, I can easily imagine these two experiences when felt separately. I do, after all, find it so easy to be proud to be Filipino when Manny Pacquaio has an upcoming fight and he represents our country on a global stage. I feel the same pride when I bump into former schoolmates and they tell me their stories about working for the government, non-governmental organizations and foundations, corporations, or studying in medical school, law school and graduate school.

It’s difficult not to feel a sense or pride and hope for the country when you see your own generation—the millennial generation, eager to take on the challenge of making the Philippines better.

Like a double-edged sword, however, the experience of being ashamed to be Filipino is probably just as easy. I feel that consistently when I watch fellow countrymen and women break everything from basic traffic laws to simple rules on littering. I feel that constantly as I watch an ongoing culture of hate manifest itself in proud, uninformed Facebook comments. It still disgusts me when I remember the time that some Filipinos managed to hate the recent Summa Cum Laude of U.P. Diliman because she was Chinese – as if there was some greater responsibility for a student than to study hard.

I share these experiences because I felt the extremes of both these feelings at the same time while watching Heneral Luna. It was genuinely hard not to.

Just thinking about how the film made me proud to be Filipino, I just remembered how the cinematography was an outstanding sensual treat to the eyes. It blew me away that we were capable of producing a film like this locally, and everything came together perfectly from the shooting of the war scenes between the Americans and Filipinos to the display of majestic landscapes and flashbacks.

Moreover, I could only appreciate the intimate shots even more when they were coupled with a playful and hard-hitting dialogue. With much respect for the script, it seemed to hit the nail on the head perfectly with regard to what the timeless sense of Filipino humor is: the ability to laugh at anything and everything. 

Whether it’s shooting from trenches and fighting against a superpower, taking a cannonball to the head, swearing, or trying to speak in fluent English, Filipinos seem to be able to laugh at anything under the sun. It switched on a little light bulb in me when I thought to myself that much of my own positivity and hope for the country could possibly be rooted in actually being a Filipino. That made me very happy.

But, that happiness and pride could only go so far when the movie pointed out one very true and shaming reality: that things in our country have not changed since 1898. During the last few scenes of the film when Emilio Aguinaldo and Felipe Buencamino Sr were denying any claims that they were involved with what happened to General Luna, it was so easy for me to imagine some of our country folk in the highest positions mouthing the same words – something to the effect of: “Hindi ko iyan kasalanan (It’s not my fault).”

As I watched General Mascardo acting on his misplaced Filipino pride, making the Cavite forces fight against General Luna, I remembered the crab mentality that remains rampant until this day. It seems as though the culture of hate – the kind that manifests itself in floods of social media comments, existed back in 1898 as well. Even in just the opening scene where everyone was fighting over what to do with the Americans coming in, respectable dialogue seems to be something we were incapable of even back then.

The pride and shame of these realizations and realities brought me to the questioning of the very foundation of my being Filipino – something, I have to add, that no other local film has done for me either.

The question of being Filipino

After dwelling on Heneral Luna, I still find myself left with many puzzling questions. It seems as though, at its core, the most pressing question I ask myself is: what does it even mean to be Filipino today?

After 300 years in a convent and 50 years in Hollywood, as the Department of Tourism (DOT) put so eloquently back in their 2012 AVP, can a national identity even begin to exist? Is the ‘being Filipino’ we’ve grown up with even a valid representation of actual nationalism today? Can we even claim a Filipino identity to begin with? And, if we’re bold enough to do so, did we just somehow end up killing it off along with General Antonio Luna along the way?

Can a Filipino identity still exist? The answer I seem to be content with, for now, is that I believe it most certainly can. And, I feel I can say that with conviction because it is this personal sense of nationalism, that we all experience differently, that allows us to transcend what’s already written in our history books, and further us to be bold enough to write our own stories – our own kind of Philippine history.

I think Jerrold Tarog’s Heneral Luna did that perfectly. The film did not disregard the fact that much of our already written past involved having been colonized by Spain and America. The movie showed that part of our history but Tarog went beyond that and showed us a modern Filipino’s story on traditional and timeless nationalism. Tarog’s story showed us more than just a “what was,” and “what is” – he showed us a “what can be” and “what more is there?”

The entire team that brought Heneral Luna to life seems to have given us more than just a film worth remembering – it’s given us the much-needed ink for our pens that have been empty for so long. It’s reminded us that the story of the Philippines goes on, and the only question that remains for us is: what kind of story are we now writing today? 

What kind of history are we making for tomorrow’s generation to read and see in the cinema in the future? When we hit 2098—200 years after what took place in the film, can we say we did what we could to teach the next generation to be more selfless because, at that time, hopefully that’s what it means to be Filipino? Can we sweep under the rug the culture of hate and selfishness that inspired the line “Bayan o sarili? (Country or self?)” in the first place? Will we see ourselves to grow up to be Lunas and bring pride to our country? Or will we live long enough to end up becoming the reason why we’re ashamed to be Filipino?

Whether we like it our not, this is the responsibility we’re left with after seeing something like Heneral Luna. It’s sparked and contributed to the story of our national identity, our being Filipino, and now it’s up to us to try and do the same. 

Will we manage to write just as great a story with our own lives to make the next people who read it be proud to call themselves Filipino, too? I genuinely hope so. I believe that would be something worth living for and dying for. And, I genuinely think that General Antonio Luna would think so, too. –

Serge Gabriel is a psychology graduate from the Ateneo de Manila University. He is an aspiring philosophy professor, triathlete, and restaurant owner. He currently juggles work in marketing, teaching, and writing while being a poet under Words Anonymous. He hopes that, whether within or after his lifetime, he can help make other people proud to call themselves Filipino.

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