THE BLOG
09/02/2011 02:20 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Hearts and Minds: John Sayles on Amigo

The infinitely curious and iconic director John Sayles digs up a war most of us didn't even know about for his latest feature film.

Scene from Amigo. Photo by Mary Cybulski, Courtesy Variance Films/Anarchists’ Convention

The iconic John Sayles is a director known for his iconoclasm. His 17 feature films are tough to categorize, with subjects ranging from a sleepy Irish fishing village (The Secret of Roan Inish) to the 1919 Chicago White Sox scandal (Eight Men Out) to a Texas border town (Lone Star) to the Louisiana bayou (Passion Fish); what they have in common are complex characters in situations where the right thing to do is not always cut-and-dried.

In his latest film, Amigo, Sayles traveled to the Philippines, where he cast local actors (Filipino star Joel Torre among them) alongside Americans (Chris Cooper, Garret Dillahunt, DJ Qualls) to portray two of the many sides of the Philippine-American War. What war, you say? That was exactly Sayles’ reaction when he first learned about this not-in-history books conflict, which lasted 2 to 14 years, depending on how you look at it.

When U.S. troops were deployed to the Philippines in 1899, it was ostensibly to fight the Spanish, who had been colonizing there for 300 years. What started out as “spreading democracy” quickly morphed into an imperialist occupation -- yes, by the U.S. At the time, there was a strong guerrilla insurgency in place, rallying for Filipino independence. Caught in the middle of these warring factions -- which soon just became the U.S. against the guerrillas -- were regular local townspeople. These mostly uneducated citizens were torn between loyalties to the insurgents, who were often family, and their American occupiers, who controlled their livelihood. Is any of this starting to sound familiar?

We talked with the infinitely curious Sayles recently about his impetus to make Amigo, which was, surprisingly, not our current situation(s) overseas.

John Sayles. Photo by Mary Cybulski, Courtesy Variance Films/Anarchists’ Convention

Kristin McCracken: What inspired you to tell this story?

John Sayles: Years and years and years ago, I wrote a novel called Los Gusanos, which deals with the long dance between Cuba and the United States. In doing that research, I went back to the Spanish-American War of 1898, and I kept running into this phrase “Philippine-American War,” which I’d never heard of. I was in my 30s at the time, and I was like, How could I not have heard of a war? A war, in fact, that we won? We usually really celebrate wars that we win…

So what that came down to was rediscovering this bit of history, both hidden and subverted, from both the American side and the Filipino side. I got kind of fascinated with the questions this raised: Why does that happen? How does this happen? What was this war? What I realized was that, although we had done things that were imperialistic before, domestically -- moving Indian tribes around -- we’d never really gone to somebody else’s country and said proudly, “We’re imperialists. We’re white Christians, and therefore, these people are lucky if we take over their country.”

And this happened in a matter of months -- we went from freeing the poor Cuban people from the oppression of some imperialists to saying, proudly, “It’s not only our right, but our duty, to take over this country and sort these little brown people out.”

Joel Torre. Photo by Mary Cybulski, Courtesy Variance Films/Anarchists’ Convention

KMc: At what point did we become embarrassed about this process?

JS: Part of the country was uneasy with it at the time. People would literally call themselves “imperialists” or “anti-imperialists.” There was a thing called the Anti-Imperialist League: Andrew Carnegie and Mark Twain were the most famous people involved. So there was an anti-war movement, there were Congressional committees, we learned waterboarding (which is in the movie) in that war. And there were inquiries into the question: “Why are we torturing people? We don’t do that.” Just like there have been during our venture in Iraq.

But at the same time, the U.S. was an extremely racist country at the time. There was this feeling of a “march of the flag,” which is in my novel: It was time for America to join the other white Christian nations whose destiny is to rule the world and bring the fruits of their superiority and their democracy -- if you want to use that word -- to all these benighted little brown people. Or black people, in some cases. The Philippines were faraway, and nobody knew where the country was. And then there becomes the thing of, “Well, you can’t criticize [the war] because there are American boys dying over there,” which also sounds very familiar.

I kept running into this phrase “hearts and minds,” which I had associated with Viet Nam, but there’s Teddy Roosevelt saying it in 1900. And he got it from previous uses -- I tracked it back to the Bible. So that’s I think in many wars, the first stage of “Okay, these people just don’t know how lucky they are that we are the people who are going to take them over, so let’s win their hearts and minds.” And then when they decide, “We don’t want you here,” and they start a guerrilla movement against you, then it becomes the tough love thing -- “Let’s just kill them all, and let God sort out the innocent ones later.”

Chris Cooper. Photo by Mary Cybulski, Courtesy Variance Films/Anarchists’ Convention

KMc: So in your research, did you ever find this war in history books?

JS: The people of Joel Torre’s [lead Filipino actor in the film] generation in the Philippines were taught, “We were colonized by the Spanish for 300 years, and then we were sold to the Americans for $20 million.” $20 million did pass hands, but it was after, or during, this 2-year war that was actually a 14-year war. Teddy Roosevelt, when he became president, announced, “Mission accomplished,” but the war kept going -- just moving further south in Philippines -- and was still going when WWI broke out.

And what I think happened was that Americans came in and took over the school system, and did wonderful things. The school system had been in the hands of these parish priests, like the one in the film, and was only for the richest kid in town. He would get a very proscribed Catholic education, and the Spanish didn’t even want many people to even speak Spanish, so they couldn’t bring things to court, etc. So the Americans came in with a much more democratic system of education, but they also wrote the history, and they just left out the part where there was a Philippine independence movement, a Philippine Republic. The U.S. just decided, “We want to be players, we want to be imperialists like Germany and France and Britain -- it’s our turn and our duty.”

Guerrillas in Amigo. Photo by Mary Cybulski, Courtesy Variance Films/Anarchists’ Convention

KMc: Who went over there to teach?

JS: Some of the teachers were missionaries, but because there was such ignorance about the Philippines, they went over there thinking they would convert the heathen Filipinos. But then they discovered they were all Catholics already, which didn’t make them too happy, because they were Protestant missionaries. But many of them stayed to teach, and did some wonderful things. Anyway, the Americans came over and said, “Okay, you’re going to learn English.” Only the educated class knew Spanish, so the Americans really worked hard, and they were good teachers. They were known as the Thomasites, because they came on a boat called the Santo Tomas.

But at the same time, because it was a military American governorship at first, and then a civilian American governorship -- William Taft, who later became a U.S. president, was the first civilian governor, and Douglas MacArthur’s father, Arthur MacArthur, was the first military governor -- the teachers weren’t about to rouse the rabble or fan the embers by telling the truth about what had happened, so they just ignored the fact that there had been a Filipino independence movement. They just said, “We got rid of the Spanish, and then we gave them $20 million, and now we’re your new benevolent [leaders].” It was called “benevolent assimilation” by McKinley, but it wasn’t that benevolent; there was a lot of killing before the assimilation started.

DJ Qualls. Photo by Mary Cybulski, Courtesy Variance Films/Anarchists’ Convention

KMc: When watching Amigo, it’s impossible to not see the parallels to our situation today in Iraq and Afghanistan.

JS: It’s funny -- that’s not why I made the movie at all. But it’s unavoidable. The movie could be set in Nazi-occupied France, or French-occupied Algeria, or U.S.-occupied Vietnam, or Afghanistan today. Whenever you have a situation where one country is occupying another -- whatever their reasons -- and there is a resistance movement to that occupation, there are going to be these people who are caught in between.

Specifically, the thing that got me going on the idea of Amigo was this statistic that I saw: hundreds, if not thousands, of these cabezas barrios -- the mayors of these small towns -- were killed by one side or the other. It was just an untenable position. The same happened to the mayors of Vietnamese hamlets: the Americans would come in the day, and you’d have to deal with them or they would arrest you and hand you over to the South Vietnamese army. And then the night would come, the Americans would leave, and the Vietcong would come in and torture you for dealing with the Americans. Who wants to be the mayor, after a while?

Garret Dillahunt. Photo by Mary Cybulski, Courtesy Variance Films/Anarchists’ Convention

KMc: What do you want audiences to take away from this?

JS: I always want an audience to leave thinking about their lives and what’s going on. I think it’s always interesting after a movie to say, “Who did you identify with the most? Who do you think you would have been? If you were the mayor, what do you think you would have done? Or if you were the lieutenant?” Obviously, not too many people are going to identify with the Catholic priest, because he just serves his own agenda.

But I think what’s unusual about a movie like Amigo is that it’s half Americans and half Tagalog-speaking people, so you get to see a situation from all sides. They all have their own ideas about who the other is -- even the Chinese are prejudiced. They are the low man on the totem pole, and they think everybody else is a dog-eater, that everyone is inferior to the Chinese. So they all have their own myths about each other, but you as the audience get to sit in every camp, and hear what those people think and how they see the world.

So a lot of what I like people to leave with is, first of all, that they got involved in the story, and that they were rooting for somebody. And they may have been rooting for both sides not to kill each other.

KMc: There’s a line in the movie: "How can everyone be right?"

JS: Right. [A truce] is what you hope for at the end of it, but it’s not going to happen, because the pressure of that kind of war forces everything to a head, eventually. But you hope that audiences come back thinking in a more complex way than they did when they went in.

That’s not what most movies do. Most movies, honestly, are designed to be simplistic. And I write some of those movies for other people -- in your usual superhero movie, or in good guy/bad guy movies, the bad guy has to be really bad so you can kill him in a really nasty way. And that happens in the world, but not that often. Usually it’s more of a situation like something in Amigo, where there’s something to be said on both sides; there’s a reason why both sides are in the fight. And there are some people who would rather not be in the fight, but they got dragged into it.


Amigo opens Friday, August 19. Find tickets.

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