When is historical fiction acceptable?

Community News & Features Jul 26, 2019 at 3:34 pm

Quezons Game_posterFilm Review: Quezon’s Game (2018)

By Ysh Cabana
The Philippine Reporter

When Quezon’s Game won top prize at the Cinema World Festival (Autumn Selection) in Ottawa in 2018, it became an instant historical blockbuster in the Philippines this year. It has won 23 awards in various film festivals around the world. But in rewriting the past, has this achieved justice for the story it portrays? Or by rewriting the past, has it done as much damage as the charge that it misrepresents history?

Quezon’s Game tells the story of strongman Manuel Quezon (Raymond Bagatsing), who had the upper hand in saving some 1,200 Jews racing against imminent death from the Nazis. In 1938, Quezon, the first president of the Philippine Commonwealth, and future U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower (David Bianco) set out to shelter the stream of refugees arriving in Manila from the ghettos of Germany and Austria. At the start, it seems to be a long shot given the obstacles.

Quezon is portrayed early on as an unalloyed leader with his charismatic presence in parties, delivery of his speeches and conversations with his contemporaries in government. But to add a narrative overlay, his life is creatively interpreted by his personal struggles with tubercolosis. As the title itself suggests, it gives meaningful story to the main character beyond the mere quest for personal interests. The plot depicts Manila as a thriving cultural and economic giant in the Far East. While the cinematography provides a sense of a world lurching toward war.

Quezons Game_3The period film evokes a certain consciousness of relevant issues today such as sovereignty, discrimination, particularly antisemitism, and representation. First Lady Aurora (Rachel Alejandro) and their shrewd daughter Baby (Kate Alejandrino), play regal roles in the screenplay which has absolutely nothing to do with the real Mrs. Quezon. But this is only to warm the cockles of a liberal audience who want to feel good about not being racist. And make no mistake: racism in reverse is colonial mentality. With its sepia undertones, it discreetly shows how the pigmented past renders a shadow to Philippine postcolonial history disguised in the language of class and culture. In this heated global current, British-Jewish Matthew Rosen’s directorial debut of a historical fiction reads not as artistic licence, but as erasure.

One of Quezon’s true-to-life allies, Senator Claro Recto, once described him as “a master of political intrigue” who could “excite envy, distrust, ambition, jealousy, even among his own loyal followers.” Populist as he was, Quezon triumphed by outplaying colonial superiors he still acknowledged as essential to his mission, while neutralizing local provincial rivals.

In one scene, Sergio Osmeña (Audie Gemora), who was then vice president, has a meeting with the bull-headed president and frankly confronts him about how their fellow politicians harbor misgivings on being so welcoming to the Jews. Quezon and Osmeña understood each other as political supremacy motivated both men. The fiction is then on point in showing that a colonial society built on racism is designed to be unequal.

Quezons Game_2This is what Quezon’s gamble is. The Commonwealth had its own authority to decide who would be allowed to set foot in the Philippines taking into consideration what are the political lines and public opinion. At that time, every person seeking refuge would have to have skills or a background considered beneficial to the country in order to be given a visa–a direct parallel to the refugee crisis of modern times.

“Could I have done more?” he asks his wife, as he witnesses millions of lives lost to the Nazis.

If we can’t issue clear rules about what constitutes historical fictionalization to be acceptable, and we don’t want our bureaucratic government to reinforce them, we are left with our situation. As is the present order of things, films are commercial products.

How then can we navigate through this squall of real and made-up information? So long as critical thinking is provided as public response, these films are helpful, not a hindrance, in stimulating our fascination with the past.

It is up to us to choose to believe what we watch and how we act on them.

Quezon’s Game

Director/cinematographer: Matthew Rosen; screenplay: Janice Y. Perez, Dean Rosen; music: Dean Rose; producer: Carlo Katigbak, Olivia M. Lamasan, Lorena H. Rosen, Linggit Tan. Not rated. In Filipino, Spanish, English. Running time: 125 mins.

Starring: Raymond Bagatsing, Rachel Alejandro, Kate Alejandrino, David Bianco, James Paoleli, Jennifer Blair-Bianco, Audie Gemora, Billy Ray Gallion, Tony Ahn, Miguel Faustmann