Movies about politicians are tough to make and sometimes even tougher to watch. Arturo Rotor — besides being a well-known writer and botanist, he served as executive secretary in the Commonwealth government-in-exile — helps explain why in something he once wrote about the main character in tonight’s movie:
“(Manuel) Quezon had his own way of gauging public opinion, of taking a poll survey. He would say something preposterous or do the completely unexpected to find out what the people thought of a political leader, or to measure their opposition to religious instruction in schools. If the act aroused a bigger rumpus than he had calculated, he would institute an appropriate measure. Thus to the uninformed, Quezon often appeared inconsistent, mercurial, unreliable, a man whose word could not be trusted. No greater mistake can be made. When Quezon had studied a problem and made up his mind, no earthly force could stop him.”
Tonight we’re going to see one studio’s take on one such problem: the Jewish Question, as the Nazis put it. You would be a fool if you were to consider the film we’re about to see as the Gospel truth or an objective source of facts. But just as I’m sure there are plenty of details and portrayals we could debate ’til kingdom come, so am I convinced that there is an essential truth that this movie can help us comprehend and understand.
That essential truth can be found in a response Quezon gave in a gathering similar to this one.
It was 82 years ago, on Feb. 15, 1937. It was a banquet thrown in Quezon’s honor by Louis B. Mayer of MGM, attended by studio stars and the mayor of Los Angeles.
Quezon began his response, as all politicians do, with pleasantries, saying, “We who must deal with the realities of a workaday world know that reality is not always pleasant. And today I am in the land of make-believe and it is indeed an oasis in the desert of a public man’s life.”
He continued: “You and I may be working in different spheres of human life, yet you and I are working toward the same goal. A life led without achievement is worthless, and only that life is livable that is dedicated to the achievement of a noble aim. We want to die leaving something behind us so that those who may come after may think of us kindly. That life which ends with death only is a life of frustration and futility, and that is not the life of the artist nor of the public man.”
We consider politics ignoble, but grudgingly have to admit it can sometimes be used for noble aims. Take an incident 83 years ago, on June 13, 1936. Manuel Quezon and a boatload of assemblymen were sailing past Palawan on their way to Mindanao, which Quezon wanted the assemblymen to tour so they would understand why it was important to develop the Land of Promise. Along the way, they passed by a small island called Culion.
Today, we know Culion as a tourist spot, but back then, it was a forbidden place where up to 7,000 lepers were forcibly detained under a policy established by the Americans. As the ship full of congressmen prepared to dock at Culion, Quezon, looking at the island, became emotional, and quoting Dante’s famous lines about Hell, exclaimed, “Abandon all hope, all ye who enter here.”
Perhaps it was because of his own tuberculosis, but Quezon had felt strongly about imprisoning lepers on this island for more than a decade. As president, he would systematically establish a new system to bring treatment closer to where the patients were instead of tearing them apart from their families.
By 1940, there would be a leprosarium in Tala, Caloocan, one of several. Even two years later, in the damp yet dusty Malinta tunnel in January 1942, Quezon would receive a telegram with an appeal — the lepers in Culion were starving! And somehow, in the midst of the Japanese invasion, he made arrangements with the International Red Cross to try to find a way to ship food to Culion.
What do lepers — Hansenites, they are called today — have to do with tonight’s film? If he believed no one should be an exile in their own land, how much more that there should be no exiles from foreign lands?
Tonight’s film will try to tell a story of how some faced fear and bigotry and said no to it being used to justifying terror and inhumanity. The question is whether after tonight, this story will still seem so strange, because so detached from what we are as a people today, as to remain a passing moment of make-believe.
[Remarks at the premiere of Star Cinema’s “Quezon’s Game” last night. The film opens on May 29.]