Cine­matic scope to Philip­pine politics

Winnipeg Free Press - - TANK - PHILLIP DAY

ANILA — It has been 42 years since Fran­cis Ford Cop­pola came to the Philip­pines to film his Viet­nam war epic Apoc­a­lypse Now. The legacy of the film re­mains strong here, not just in what the pro­duc­tion left be­hind but in the themes that echo in today’s politics.

When I moved here with my fam­ily more than nine years ago, I was tick­led to learn that we would be liv­ing in the same gated vil­lage that Cop­pola’s fam­ily stayed in dur­ing the pro­duc­tion. Apoc­a­lypse Now is ac­knowl­edged by many crit­ics as one of the best films ever made. It’s cer­tainly my favourite.

Cop­pola’s wife Eleanor called Das­mari­nas Vil­lage “the Philip­pine Bev­erly Hills” in a book she wrote about the ex­pe­ri­ence. Its quiet, leafy streets are home to em­bassies and the man­sions of the coun­try’s rich­est fam­i­lies.

Out­side the vil­lage, much has changed since the 1970s. Sky­scrapers tower over it, ev­i­dence of the fran­tic growth that has seen the Philip­pine econ­omy out­pace most of its neigh­bours in re­cent years. But along­side those shiny new build­ings (of­ten lit­er­ally along­side), the des­per­ate poverty that the Cop­po­las wit­nessed has only wors­ened, with mil­lions of poor squat­ters crammed into tum­bled lanes of tin and tarpa­per shacks.

Over­head, I of­ten hear the fwap-fwap-fwap of he­li­copters on their way to the nearby air force base, a noise fea­tured re­peat­edly in the film. To get au­then­tic “Huey” chop­pers like those used in Viet­nam, Cop­pola made a deal to rent them from the coun­try’s strong­man dic­ta­tor, Fer­di­nand Mar­cos. He also bar­gained for troops to use as ex­tras and got per­mis­sion to op­er­ate mostly as he

Mwished, build­ing and de­stroy­ing whole vil­lages dur­ing pro­duc­tion. Mar­cos had placed the coun­try un­der mar­tial law and could do what he wanted to help Cop­pola. The only down­side was that those chop­pers had to be pulled out at times to fight in­sur­gents in the south­ern is­land of Min­danao, where clashes had orig­i­nally given Mar­cos the ex­cuse to de­clare coun­try­wide mar­tial law.

Min­danao is again un­der mar­tial law be­cause of anti-gov­ern­ment fight­ing, this time de­clared by an­other pop­u­lar strong­man, Pres­i­dent Ro­drigo Duterte. He has mused about ex­tend­ing it to the rest of the coun­try, should op­po­si­tion to his poli­cies prove trou­ble­some.

Duterte has been ac­tive in re­ha­bil­i­tat­ing the Mar­cos name.

The fam­ily is still in the pub­lic eye, with Fer­di­nand’s widow Imelda (yes, the shoe lady) an elected con­gress­woman. Mar­cos’s son, also named Fer­di­nand but known to all as Bong Bong, was Duterte’s run­ning mate in an un­suc­cess­ful bid to be­come vice-pres­i­dent. (The post is con­tested sep­a­rately in the Philip­pines.)

Leni Ro­bredo, who beat the younger Mar­cos, has been side­lined by Duterte. He was quoted as say­ing the last straw in the break­down of their re­la­tion­ship was her op­po­si­tion to the de­ci­sion to al­low the re-burial of the el­der Mar­cos in a ceme­tery re­served for the coun­try’s he­roes.

Like Colonel Kurtz in Cop­pola’s movie, Duterte advocates rad­i­cal meth­ods. The colonel wanted to ex­ter­mi­nate his en­e­mies “pig af­ter pig, cow af­ter cow, vil­lage af­ter vil­lage, army af­ter army.” Duterte pledged to fill Manila Bay with the crim­i­nals he would kill if elected. Like the coun­try’s ini­tial re­ac­tion to Mar­cos, who was ousted in 1986, his strong hand re­mains very pop­u­lar.

Since his elec­tion in 2016, Hu­man Rights Watch es­ti­mates more than 12,000 have been killed in Duterte’s anti-drug cam­paign. When the In­ter­na­tional Crim­i­nal Court said it would in­ves­ti­gate the deaths last month, Duterte with­drew the Philip­pines from the treaty that over­sees the court. He said last week he would have any in­ves­ti­ga­tors from the court ar­rested if they came to the Philip­pines.

Mar­cos gave Cop­pola what he wanted. Some crit­ics say Duterte is do­ing the same with China.

The last ad­min­is­tra­tion won its case in in­ter­na­tional court that China had over­stepped by de­vel­op­ing is­lands in wa­ter claimed by the Philip­pines. Duterte has put that rul­ing aside and with ev­ery tirade against hu­man rights crit­ics in the West he has moved the coun­try closer to an al­liance with China.

Politics aside, the legacy of Apoc­a­lypse Now lives on in daily life. I have hiked with our dog through a moun­tain­side jun­gle where some of its scenes were shot. The school my two boys at­tend sends stu­dents on a trip ev­ery year to a nearby wa­ter­fall on a river where some of the movie’s boat scenes took place.

The fish­ing town of Baler, north of Manila, where Cop­pola blew up a vil­lage and shot the film’s “Charlie don’t surf!” scenes, is now a top surf­ing des­ti­na­tion. When the pro­duc­tion wrapped up, the surf­boards left be­hind were taken up by lo­cals. That’s a much more pleas­ant legacy than what seems to live on in the coun­try’s cur­rent pres­i­dent.


Like Colonel Kurtz in Fran­cis Ford Cop­pola’s war drama Apoc­a­lypse Now, Philip­pine Pres­i­dent Ro­drigo Duterte advocates rad­i­cal meth­ods.

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