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INTERVIEW | John Sayles on “Amigo”: “It’s just a great story that hasn’t been told”

INTERVIEW | John Sayles on "Amigo": "It's just a great story that hasn't been told"

Oscar-nominated filmmaker John Sayles dusted off an obscure part of American (and Filipino) history in making his latest film “Amigo,” set in the Philippines amidst the backdrop of U.S. occupation following the defeat of the country’s long-time colonial overlord, Spain. The drama follows a group of U.S. troops who occupy the small jungle hamlet. Under pressure from a stalwart officer, played by Chris Cooper, to help the Americans hunt for Filipino guerrilla fighters, the town’s defacto leader, Rafael (Joel Torre) is placed in a particularly odd situation because his brother (Ronnie Lazaro) leads the local insurgency and considers anyone who cooperates with the Americans to be a traitor. Rafael faces off a no-win situation, making potentially deadly decisions.

In a recent conversation with indieWIRE, Sayles talks about how he became enthralled with this little known part of history through writing his recent book, “A Moment in the Sun,” its parallels with U.S. expeditions overseas today, filming in the Philippines and why Hollywood and network news aren’t necessarily obligated to tell an accurate story.

Variance Films opens “Amigo” beginning Friday, August 19 in select cities in the U.S.

What intrigued you initially about this period of American and Philippine history initially? There have been many films about wars America has been involved in that we’re both won or lost like World War II, the Civil War, Vietnam, and even Somalia. But not much on the Philippines and people are not as knowledgeable about this.

I think some of what attracted me was how unknown it was and when I stumbled across the existence of this war, which I had never heard of and I had relatives in the Philippines, I said “Well, how come I don’t know about this?” We usually celebrate the wars that we win. Then, asking some Filipino-American friends, they said, “It was not taught in our school. We were just taught “Oh, the Americans bought us for $20 million from the Spanish,'” leaving out a war in which at least 500,000 Filipinos were killed, maybe a million counting civilians. So, how does that happen? Why does America not want to celebrate this war in its media and why don’t they when they take over the Philippines’ school system ever talk about it, just leave it out and not even make a lie about it?

That led me to do some research and it eventually led to this book I wrote, “Moment in the Sun.” In the American psychology, when we went from “We’re the champions of liberty. We’re going to go down to Cuba and free the poor little brown Cuban peasants from the these nasty Spanish imperialists, lessers and then within a couple months, somehow it was OK for us to go to the Philippines and kill Filipinos to take over their country. People were proudly saying, “I’m an imperialist and it’s about time we became players like the British and the French and the Russians and the Germans and the Japanese.” It was pretty naked. It was racist and it was about “We should be cashing in. There’s money to be made in the world and we should be in on it too.”

There was an anti-Imperialist league. Mark Twain was the most famous person in that, who’d been very much for the Cuban part of the war and just said, “What are we doing taking away somebody else’s country?” Water-boarding, which was called the water cure back then, first reared its ugly head during this war. There were Congressional committees investigating it. So it just seems like an interesting situation to put a bunch of soldiers who really didn’t know where they were in the middle of a war and to highlight our first war of occupation.

[In this film], the mayor of the town who wakes up the morning and has to make the decision about how much to cooperate to help the people around him without being a collaborator and a traitor. How much does he resist without getting killed? That happened in Nazi-occupied Germany, the Romans in Judea, the French in Algeria, when we were in Vietnam. Those decisions had to be made by somebody. I put it in the film, I kept running into this phrase “hearts and minds.” There’s Teddy Roosevelt saying it in 1901. I had only associated it with Vietnam, but I had traced it back to the Bible.

As I was watching the film, and as you’re alluding to now, there are a lot of parallels between what’s been going on recently in Iraq and Afghanistan. Are people ignorant of history?

I don’t know that people ignore history. I think they feel that their situation is unique. One of the things about “Amigo” is as you watch it and you start to judge the people in it and how they’re acting, I hope you get the sense that you know they haven’t read the end of the book, they haven’t seen the history. These guerrillas think they can still win. We know how it ended. We look at them and say, “My God, half of them don’t even have guns or machetes around. How are they going to beat the Americans?” The Americans don’t know how history is going to judge them.

Honestly, one of the most important parts of the movie to me is that the audience member, because they can read the subtitles, can be in everybody’s camp. They can hang out with the Americans, the villagers, the guerrillas, and realize, “Wait a minute. You don’t know what the hell is going on. You’ve only got the information you’ve got. If you knew what everyone else knew, you’d watch out or you wouldn’t do it this way.”

You decided to tell this narrative about American/Filipino history, for the most part, through the eyes of this one particular village. Why did you decide to do it that way?

Two reasons. One, we only had $1.5 million. You can’t do big battles and ships and artillery on a much bigger scale well for that little money and 5 or 6 weeks of shooting. I felt that I could keep this human and tell a micro-history here that has a lot of the important elements of the bigger story on a village level and I can do it well and we can make this village. I went to the set when we were building it and there was only one power tool there, a chainsaw. Those houses are tied together, they’re not really nailed together. That was something within our range of budget to be able to do.

The other reason is to concentrate it on a human level. You want to eventually say, “I’ve seen that guy before. I don’t know his name but he’s the corporal, he’s the drunken soldier.” There’s only a dozen guys there garrisoning this town and we meet maybe 5 of them. We meet about half the guys. They become familiar to us, whether or not we recognize their names. There are a lot of characters in the movie, but the minute you get down to platoon-size or a regiment-size it’s just another guy in an American uniform.

I really thought that “Black Hawk Down” was a well-made movie, but it didn’t do especially well. I know from talking to other people, they said, “I didn’t know that so-and-so was in it until I saw the credits,” because you couldn’t tell one American from another. They were in uniform, they had helmets on, it’s quick, they’re all soldiers. It was shot in a very down tone visually, so I couldn’t root for anybody.

Many people know little to nothing about this period, though I vaguely remember as a student, hearing the pro-American narrative that we came in, we kicked the Spanish out and we gave them their independence on their own 4th of July. Beyond that, I hadn’t considered it much. So, was there an overall desire to right a historical inaccuracy?

In some ways, we get our history more from popular media than we do from reading history books. Certainly I did. I never took a history course in my life, and I went to a four-year college. I remember very vividly in the late ’60s reading “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” where every chapter is about a different confrontation between a different Indian nation and the white settlers and American government of the time. Every one of them said, “I’ve seen this movie,” where Charles Bronson played Captain Jack of the Ute Indians or whatever, but this actual history I’m reading is more interesting than the movie. In some ways, running into a story like this, it’s just a great story that hasn’t been told. There’s two other American movies I’ve been able to track down that have anything to do with this period. One of them is basically a remake of “Gunga Din,” with no Filipinos in it. The other was kind of an American propaganda movie made in the Philippines with John Agar. If John Agar is your lead American character, you’re in big trouble.

You made a statement about Hollywood’s fidelity to historical accuracy as notoriously weak, saying that producers assume correctly that Americans’ knowledge of that history is even weaker. Philosophically speaking, what do you think is Hollywood’s obligation to telling historical stories?

You know, it’s a business. I don’t think they have an obligation or feel an obligation. I don’t even think that the people who work in network and cable news feel that much of an obligation to talk about what’s really happening. If you watched the coverage of the last couple wars we’ve had, they’re like miniseries. Each network had a theme song and they would try a couple things and when the ratings went up, they’d keep doing that. If that happened to leave out a lot of what was going on, they’d leave it out because it was taking the place of something more popular. If the news media aren’t even going to worry about history and what’s actually happening in the moment, you can’t expect a corporate business like the film business to worry about it too much.

As far as shooting “Amigo” in the Philippines, was that a no-brainer, or did you consider going elsewhere?

Yeah, we could afford to do it. One of the reasons I was able to do it is having known Joel Torre, the lead in the movie, before and talking with him about the industry. They make a lot of movies, they have a real film industry, they have a lot of talent there on both sides of camera. We were able to have an all-Filipino crew, except for the sound people because they don’t shoot many sound movies. A wonderful, premier cinematographer Lee Meily, who was able to put together a great crew for us. They generally worked 24 hours and 24 hours off, more American-style hours, so people got to go home at night and go to sleep, which they were very happy about. And we did the post-production there as well, so we could afford to do it. It was a combination of them having a real film industry and real technicians and actors who are very talented and everything that you do in the Philippines is about a third as expensive as it would be here. We could do something for a million and a half that looks like a much more expensive movie. And I’ve made 17 movies and I know how to get a lot out of shooting.

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