Philippine history

[OPINION] Cinema as nation-building: Why GomBurZa is important

Matthew Ordoñez

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[OPINION] Cinema as nation-building: Why GomBurZa is important
One is not simply born Filipino. One must be deliberately Filipino – to know what it means and to defend it with our lives.

GomBurZa (2023) was one of the few Metro Manila Film Festival entries that caught my attention. Perhaps the movie was in response to the infamous “Majoha incident,” where a contestant of Pinoy Big Brother failed to identify the three priests in Philippine history – Fr. Jose Burgos, Fr. Mariano Gomez, and Fr. Jacinto Zamora. Most people knew their place in history as martyrs whose executions inspired many key figures of the revolution, including Jose Rizal. However, little else is known by the general public. This was an opportunity to reflect on why these specific priests are important. 

Despite being iconic in our history books and lessons, their stories are not very cinematic as it involves a complex set of characters, concepts, and circumstances. As a result, the film struggles to balance historical accuracy with cinematic storytelling. In certain parts, especially the first act, the film felt like dramatic reenactments of a History Channel documentary spliced together into a feature film but without the annotation of historians and intellectuals. At times, the characters speak aloud important themes such as equality and national identity in expository dialogue without showing the audience why these are important. This breaks a core tenet of cinema,” show, don’t tell.” The production design of the film is both immersive and economic as director Pepe Diokno focused on tight shots and specific locations. 

Though uneven, the film is certainly competently made. But why is it important?

GomBurZa begs comparison with more recent successful historical films like Tarrog’s Heneral Luna and Goyo. Certainly, these two films are more entertaining and dramatic stories with grander narratives and cinematography. Most of all, they had engaging and electric performances from John Arcilla and Paulo Avelino. 

However, I would argue that GomBurZa is not only more historically grounded but also more important to us as a nation. The film does not try to exaggerate the roles of the titular priests in our history but uses them as a narrative springboard and shifts the perspectives to other segments of society, such as the Cavite Mutiny, the Filipino elite, the corrupt friars, and the frustrated activist youth. 

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Unlike how it was marketed, which highlights the priests dead center in the posters, this film is not about individual “heroes” but how these individuals were swept by circumstances beyond their control. At most, the most active titular character, Father Burgos, played by Cedrick Juan, managed to inspire his students to organize their own movement and reinforced the idea of a Filipino nation in his writings. However, he was not in control of the consequences of his actions. He was a protagonist with very little agency as his reputation caused him and his colleagues to be framed for crimes they did not commit. The movie certainly had strong characters, but it was not just about these characters.

‘The First Filipinos’

Despite the title, the film is much less an origin story of GomBurZa as it is the origin of the Filipino. I could think of an alternative title: “The First Filipinos.” The heart of the film is the question, “What is a Filipino?”

This is relevant to this day. In the film, the term was first coined by Fr. Pelaez, Burgos’s mentor, played by Piolo Pascual, who reacted to prejudice from the Motherland for being Spaniards born in the colonies. The concept was questioned in another scene, when leaders of the Association of Filipinos asked their indio servant boy if he considered himself a Filipino but he responded by saying he was a “Tagalog.”

Some people today certainly have this similar sentiment where their regional identity supersedes their national identity as a Filipino. More importantly, this scene illustrated that the concept of the Filipino was either new or unknown to most of the natives of the Philippines.

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At the risk of being overly abstract and academic, this movie boldly and surgically planted a seed of reflection for what a casual moviegoer may have taken for granted. We always assumed we are Filipino based on our parentage and our passport, but we rarely remember what that means. While we collectively honor the GomBurZa as Filipino heroes, the film highlights that they are not Filipinos in the conventional sense. They were born in the Philippines but they do not share genetic qualities or blood relations with the Indios. They were Creoles of European descent yet they spoke out for equality and dignity alongside indios and mestizos under the label of “Filipinos.” 

Identity as invention

The movie correctly presents the Filipino identity as an invention that needed foundation and cultivation rather than something that we are innately born with. Being a Filipino nation was not about a racial identity but an identity based on the shared experiences of oppression by colonial Spain and the collective desire for equality and dignity.

One is not simply born Filipino. One must be deliberately Filipino – to know what it means and to defend it with our lives.

The climax of the film, the execution of the GomBurZa, made this thesis even clearer. While the scene itself was almost plainly implemented, it had a resounding dramatic message. Burgos’ final words were a simple but emphatic declaration of innocence. It was pointing out injustice to the crowd, and they knew it. They responded to it.

The defiance against unjust authority and punishment was passed on to Rizal and the Katipunan. Perhaps, by extension, that flame should be passed, to us, the audience, the Filipinos of today.

GomBurZa was marketed as a historical biopic and certainly has some of the tropes and trappings of the genre. But the film also raises these questions: What is a Filipino? Who are we as Filipinos? What do we have in common? What brings us together? What must we do as Filipinos? What should we fight for as a nation? These are necessary for us to grapple with as a people. –

Matthew Ordoñez is a university lecturer who teaches courses in politics, social sciences,  citizenship and governance.

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