Writer and director John Sayles’ new movie, “Amigo” opens on August 19. The film is a beautifully shot period piece, and character study, about two sides in conflict that are probably closer than either realizes.
“Amigo” is set in the Philippines in 1900, during the Philippine-American War. I asked Mr. Sayles what could have prompted him to make a film about the United States invading a country where we did not know the language or culture. “Yeah, where did I come up with that?” He replied knowingly.
Sayles went on to explain that “Amigo” covers a period of history that not many Philippinos know. Sayles said, “I have relatives who lived in the Philippines. I know where it is. How come I’ve never heard of this (the Philippine-American War)?” Sayles went on, “Then I asked some of my Philippine-American and Philippino friends. They said, ‘You know, it wasn’t taught in our schools. We were taught that we were occupied by Spain for 300 years and then they sold us to the United States for 20 million dollars, leaving out the fact that we had a Philippine republic, we fought for our independence, and half a million, to a million, people were killed.’” Sayles continued, “I got suspicious. How does that history disappear and why, in both countries?”
Sayles explained that the war started when the United States wanted to free Cuba from imperialist Spanish rule, but somehow wound up taking over the Philippines. “What I saw, when I looked into it, was this switch, not so much in how we behave, but in how we thought of ourselves. We went from being people who thought, ‘We’re the champions of liberty, to we are proud card carrying imperialists and now we’re players like the British and everybody else,” Sayles explained.
I asked, “If the issue was Cuba, why did we go into the Philippines?” Sayles replied, “Well that was the question many of these soldiers asked.” He explained that there was a lot of enthusiasm for war from young people who had missed out on fighting in the Civil War, as their grandfathers had, and wanted their chance at glory. Many of these volunteers thought they were going to Cuba. “They didn’t know where the Philippines were. Only about a quarter of those troops even got to go to Cuba,” Sayles explained, adding that the remainder were disappointed that they did not get to shoot anyone and “’Cover ourselves with glory,’ as they said in those days. Some of them were told ‘You’re going to go to the Philippines.’”
Sayles explained that the United States took the Philippines from the Spanish in what he described as a “one day mock battle” in which it was pre-arranged that the Spanish would surrender. The Philippinos, who were finally free of 300 years of fighting the Spanish, then found themselves at war with the United States. Sayles said that many of the soldiers were confused as to why they were in the Philippines but decided, “I don’t know why we’re here, but I’ll do what I’m told.”
Regarding “Amigo’s” obvious parallel to the United States’ current situation in the Middle East Sayles said, “The justifications change, but the behavior and the situations that people get put in are very similar, and I got interested in that, that universal situation.” He added that while he was certainly aware of the film’s modern day parallels, “This same story could have worked about the Nazi occupation of France, or the French occupation of Algeria, or the French, Japanese or American occupation of Vietnam.”
“Amigo” opens, in New York, Los Angeles and San Franciso on August 19. It will expand to more theatres on August 26. In New York it will open at AMC Theatres Empire 25, 234 West 42 Street.
Amigo, Director John Sayles, 2011,
Variance Film, 128 minutes, rated R