In Bontoc Eulogy, Martin Fuentes addresses a relatively unknown chapter of American history through a mock-documentary search for family history. This fictionalized account of the search for roots takes viewers back to the Philippine-American war, which as the narrator states, comes across as a “dream muted by the dailyness of life’s events” (Fuentes). The disappearance from history is the subject of the eulogy referenced in the title, and Fuentes capitalizes on early film and photographic documentation of the time to emphasize the forgetting. By centering his camera on archaic representation, Fuentes pulls off the shroud surrounding the treatment of Filipinos in the United States during the earlier part of the twentieth century.
The primary way Fuentes achieves this unveiling is by using film and photographs contemporary to the time period. This focuses the viewer’s attention on the way in which native Filipinos were appropriated by a country which had no real understanding of their culture or customs. Much of this film originated at the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904, and focuses on displaying the “barbaric” qualities of these people. The Filipinos involved were recruited from the mountainous regions, and they were expected to live on the reservation provided at the fair as they did in their home region. Obvious manipulation of their circumstances comes through, however, as the Filipinos are directed to place their housing in one location, eat certain things, and participate in a “native Olympics.” The demeaning treatment is compounded by being constantly on display for “sophisticated” people to gawk at while wearing fine clothing.
By framing this inside a fictional exploration of family history, Fuentes allows the viewer to identify with himself as narrator. Most modern audiences would have difficulty in identifying with the objectified Filipinos on display during the World’s Fair, with at least two differences separating them from those on film. First, in the original film sections, the Filipinos are objectified and treated as if a museum display, removing their humanity; in the second case, most Americans are unaware of this part of the country’s history and would have trouble connecting with it. Fuentes counters these problems by locating his narrator as a “modern American” investigating his family’s history, and the use of modern clothing, speech, and imagery in Bontoc Eulogy serves to provide handholds to the modern viewer, especially for those unfamiliar with the history.
Revealing the history of immigrant experience is a common thread in the texts for this class. As Fuentes focuses on throughout his film, America has a “talent of forgetting” (Fuentes), especially for pieces of history which may show the country in a bad light. The problem with forgetting how groups of people were treated at various points in the country’s history is that it ensures an eventual repetition, one which we cannot afford. The military’s experience in the Philippine-American war, as conveyed in This Bloody, Blundering Business, for instance, has been repeated again and again in Korea, in Vietnam, and currently in Iraq and Afghanistan, and is just one example of this. The fights for equality have been fought again and again for each ethnic minority, and are ongoing as the GLBT community can attest.
In each case, the fight must be repeated and eyes opened through films like Bontoc Eulogy, This Bloody, Blundering Business, and The Fred Korematsu Story. These films share a visual rhetoric as well. Each of the filmmakers focuses on the eyes of the people, casting them as human despite the original, often propagandist, viewpoint. This repurposing of original film and photography allows the humanity of subjects to come to the forefront for the audience, denying the ability to objectify the subject, as well as pointing out the original intent of the medium. This again helps the viewer to empathize with the subjects, and helps reveal the full horrors of their treatment at American hands. Creating human recognition and countering the “talent of forgetting” is of primary importance to avoiding the same atrocities recurrence.
Fuentes, Martin, director. Bontoc Eulogy. Washington: CPB, 1995. Video Recording.