A Moment in the Sun

AMY GOODMAN: Today we spend the hour with the legendary independent filmmaker and author John Sayles. Over the past three decades, he has directed 17 feature films, including The Return of the Secaucus Seven, Matewan, Lone Star, and Eight Men Out. He is also a successful script doctor, rewriting the scripts of many Hollywood blockbusters including Apollo 13.

John Sayles has often used his films to tackle pressing political issues, as well as themes of of race, class, labor and sexuality. His newest film, Amigo, which opens in August, is set in the Philippines during the U.S. occupation.

John Sayles is also celebrated author. A winner of the O. Henry Award, he has just published his first novel in 20 years. It’s called A Moment in the Sun. It’s a sprawling work which takes the turn of the 20th century in its sights, from a white racist coup in Wilmington, North Carolina, to the first stirrings of the motion picture industry, to the bloody dawn of U.S. interventionism in Cuba and the Philippines.

We sat down on Wednesday before John Sayles left for the Philippines, and I asked him about his epic historical novel, A Moment in the Sun.

JOHN SAYLES: Yeah, I got sucked into this. I was doing research for my last novel, Los Gusanos, and I came — kept coming across this phrase, "the Philippine insurrection," or "the Philippine-American War." And I said, "OK, I’m 30-something years old. How come I’ve never heard of this?" which got me suspicious. You know, usually when we win a war — and we won that war — we celebrate it. And how come, you know, Amigo is probably going to be the third movie ever made in the United States about the Philippine-American War? How come there are no novels about it? How come it’s not in our history books? And then asking my Philippine and Philippine-American friends what they knew about it, they said, "Well, we kind of know about it, but it was not taught in our schools." How is something that — that’s like not teaching the American Revolution in American schools. You know, how does a piece of history, where probably a million Filipinos died, get plowed under like that? And why? So that’s some of what the story is.

And then — and I found the other big thing that was happening in the United States at the time was the last nail in the coffin of Reconstruction was being nailed in in North Carolina, the last of the, you know, former Confederate states to bring in the Jim Crow laws, to disenfranchise their black voters. And the two were linked. And so -—

AMY GOODMAN: Explain how they’re linked.

JOHN SAYLES: Well, I think they’re just linked by race, which is that whenever you look into anything historical, you have to think of what’s the worldview of the people who are living then, who are the actors in the play. And the worldview then was an extremely racist one, and not just from the yellow journalists and, you know, the rednecks or whatever, but college professors and presidents were spouting, you know, eugenics and other kind of racial theories that basically gave them a kind of green light to go and do whatever they wanted in the world, as long as it wasn’t to white people.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, we have just been talking about Puerto Rico. President Obama has made the first presidential visit in half a century, Puerto Rico, which — the key moment when the U.S. occupied, 1898, which — talking about the Philippines, talking about Cuba. Now, most people aren’t familiar with this history. And you chose the dawn of the 20th century as your backdrop. So, talk about the connection between the Philippines and Cuba.

JOHN SAYLES: Yeah, I think that the interesting thing for me was that there was this switch in the mentality and the self-image of Americans. We had certainly done things that were imperialistic before. We had, you know, defeated and taken over the lands of Indian nations. We had taken a big chunk of northern Mexico. But we didn’t think of ourselves, or want to think of ourselves, as imperialists. In a few-month period, from the time that the United States defeated the Spanish in Cuba, we went from saying, "OK, we’re the lovers of liberty. We’re here to liberate these people from oppression, from imperialism," to, "Oh, let’s not leave the Philippines." And it was, I think, a combination of opportunism and ignorance.

There was a thing called the Teller Amendment that — when we were discussing in Congress whether to fight the Spanish and kick them out of Cuba. And they were doing horrendous things in Cuba. They were doing — you know, its concentration camps were literally called "concentration camps" there. People were being starved. People were being murdered in Cuba. When we were debating whether we were going to actually have this war with Spain, a congressman named Teller said, "Well, this isn’t because you want to take over Cuba as a territory or a state and exploit it." And the expansionists said, "Oh, no, no. This is just pro bono. This is, you know, because we love liberty." And he said, "Well, put it in writing." So the Teller Amendment was written. But because of ignorance, people didn’t also kind of know that Spain was sitting in Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines. So, when we won so quickly the war in Cuba, the expansionists said, "Well, those places also are being controlled by the Spaniards. We could kick them out of there. And they’re not covered by the amendment." So, all of a sudden, there was this kind of second wave of that war.

And what’s interesting, you know, some of the characters in my book, in A Moment in the Sun, end up being people who probably, for their various reasons, volunteered for the war, because it was not a time when we had a big standing army, so more than half of the people who fought in those wars were volunteers, to liberate the Cuban people, and instead found themselves in the Philippines killing Filipinos, to take over the Philippines as an American territory.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to a clip of Amigo, because it is related to this book, and I want to talk about how it is afterwards. But from the beginning of this film that’s coming out in August, shortly after American soldiers have taken a small village in the Philippines, they’re visited by their commanding officers.

COL. HARDACRE: Everything locked down here, Lieutenant?

LT. COMPTON: Yes, sir. We took the barrio with no resistance. Only a couple of runaways.

COL. HARDACRE: Pick 10 you can trust, and work out the billeting.


COL. HARDACRE: Can’t have the monkeys sneaking in behind us while we’re chasing Aguinaldo off the island. I need a garrison here.

LT. COMPTON: My boys are hot to go, Colonel. Staying here would mean —

COL. HARDACRE: I need a garrison.

LT. COMPTON: Yes, sir.

COL. HARDACRE: Hell, for all I know, ol’ Aggie’s hiding right in this village. Smoke him out, and end the war. Lord knows I can’t tell one from the other.

PADRE HIDALGO: May I thank you, Colonel, that you deliver us from captivity?

LT. COMPTON: This is Padre Hidalgo. The local insurrectos had him caged up in the bodega, along with a couple of dons they had caught.

COL. HARDACRE: We’ll get you back to Manila as soon as we can, Padre.

PADRE HIDALGO: These are my children. Their souls are in my care. Cannot leave this place.

COL. HARDACRE: You’ve got yourself an interpreter, Lieutenant. Zuniga!

ZUNIGA: Si, jefe.

COL. HARDACRE: Vamos with us.

ZUNIGA: A sus órdenes, Colonel.

COL. HARDACRE: You hold on to [inaudible] and some coolies to hang the wire tomorrow, and you keep it singing. Get these people up out of the dirt, for God’s sake. We’re supposed to be winning their hearts and minds!

LT. COMPTON: Yes, sir!

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt from John Sayles’ upcoming film called Amigo, which is also the subject of, well, part of his tome, his remarkable novel called A Moment in the Sun. Explain what we’ve just listened to and watched.

JOHN SAYLES: Yeah, the policy, somewhat like in Vietnam, the military policy in the Philippines changed two or three times. The first part of the war was a more conventional war. The Philippine Republic had an army. They had a constitution. They had taxes. I don’t think most Americans knew that at the time. They thought they were fighting a bunch of, you know, savages. And certainly, in A Moment in the Sun, one of the things that you see is the media of the time, including the political cartoonists, that, from the beginning of the conflict, when the Filipinos were still our allies against the Spanish, they were drawn as something close to a Cuban or a Mexican — off-white, raggedy clothes, straw hat. And then, within weeks of the beginning of the Philippine-American War, they were drawn as coal-black savages with grass skirts and bones in their nose and crazy hair and wooden spears.

What happened at the very beginning was there was a conventional war, which the Filipinos lost badly because they had no artillery, among other things. They were very badly trained and armed. And then it turned, after the first year, into a guerrilla war. This was the beginning of the guerrilla, when there was at least an attempt, at first, to win the hearts and minds of the people. That’s a phrase that goes back to Teddy Roosevelt, and even further back to the Bible. We associate it with Vietnam, but it gets resurrected not just by Americans but by other people whenever they occupy a country. When that doesn’t work out, there’s usually a second phase, which is the kind of tough love. "Hamletization," we called it in Vietnam. In the Philippines, it meant usually surrounding people with barbed wire, killing all their caribou, burning their rice fields, and saying, "From now on, you eat American canned goods, like our soldiers do, so we can keep track of you." And, you know, that’s common in most wars of occupation, not just American wars of occupation.

AMY GOODMAN: We did get a question in advance on Facebook from Carlo Angelo Vargas, who asks you, "How important was it, as an American filmmaker, to shed light on the Philippine-American War in your film Amigo?"

JOHN SAYLES: Yeah, I think — I think, first of all, I think it’s important to know how we got where we are, how we got where we are in our relationships with other countries, how we got where we are psychologically as Americans. And a lot went on in this very, very short period. I think, for Filipinos — and as we’ve been starting to show Amigo in the Philippines — I think the important thing is this very important part of Philippine history has kind of been robbed from the people. And only recently have Philippine historians been able to resurrect some of it, to know that Filipinos resisted, that they had a Philippine Republic in, you know, 1898, that there — they had their own constitution, partly based on the U.S. Constitution. What was usually taught in Philippine schools for years and years and years was, oh, the Spanish were here for 300 years, and then they sold us to the Americans for $20 million, leaving out this resistance, leaving out, you know, the very important part, that there was a Philippine Republic that was disappeared very quickly.

AMY GOODMAN: Is this period, this critical period at the cusp of the 20th century, an allegory to what’s happening today in Iraq, in Afghanistan?

JOHN SAYLES: I think it’s unavoidably allegorical to almost any kind of occupation. You know, certainly Amigo could have been set in France during the Nazi occupation, in Algeria during the French occupation, in Vietnam during the French, Japanese or American occupation. You know, those kind of situations where the occupying force is more powerful, has more technology, doesn’t really understand the culture — or care to understand the culture that much — and has very, very specific goals that they’re trying to, you know, get across, you’re going to have these situations. You’re going to have people who are caught in between. You’re going to have, usually, a local group who’s willing to work with the occupying force, because they never got along with the local population. In the Philippines, it was a group called the Macabebes. You know, it might have been the Crow Indian fighting against the Sioux. You know, when Cortés invaded Mexico, most of his shock troops were indigenous people, not Spaniards. Those things occur over and over and over and over.

And I think that, you know, for just a citizen, one of the things that I think you should be able to take from history is ammunition to make you suspicious, to make you ask the second question, and not just accept the first thing you hear, from anybody.

AMY GOODMAN: Legendary filmmaker John Sayles. His new book is called A Moment in the Sun. His film Amigo just opened in the Philippines, where John Sayles is right now. When we come back, we speak with John Sayles about Matewan.

JOHN SAYLES: Yeah, Matewan is a movie about a labor strike, a coal miner strike in 1920 in West Virginia. The way that the coal operators tried to keep workers divided in those days was what they called a judicious mixture, which would be to hire a third hillbilly miners from West Virginia, a third immigrants from Yugoslavia, Italy, wherever, and a third black miners from the South, where the mines were just tapping out, and they would come up and be — trying to use them as strikebreakers. Often housed them in three different places, put them into the mine from three different places so that they couldn’t even meet on the job. And they thought, "Well, these people will never get together and form a union." But in fact, the conditions were so bad and the pay was so bad that they found ways to find each other and ended up forming — the UMW was one of the most integrated unions of that time.

AMY GOODMAN: United Mine Workers.


AMY GOODMAN: So this is John Sayles’ film Matewan, an excerpt, a scene in a striker encampment in the woods, beginning with a visit by the company’s hired muscle attempting to threaten the striking workers and their families.

HICKEY: You people have been put out of Stone Mountain Mine housing. And some of you have seen fit to take along certain items of food, furniture and clothing that don’t belong to you, but belong to the company. As of the day of the strike, your scrip ceased to be legal tender, meaning that any item of food, clothing and furniture not paid for in cash money must be turned over to me and my deputies. I suggest that you all cooperate. See my boys? They didn’t get much sleep last night, so they’re kind of jumpy. Besides, we got the law on our side.

HILLARD ELKINS: You ain’t no law! You got to slip around the real law. You just got guns is all. You’re just thugs.

HICKEY: Yeah, maybe you’re right, sonny. We just got guns. You still gotta hand in them goods.

HILLARD ELKINS: Yellow scab herder, you!

MRS. ELKINS: Hillard, you get up from there.

JOE KENEHAN: You got a list of goods?

GRIGGS: Don’t need one.

JOE KENEHAN: How you gonna know what belongs to the company and what don’t?

GRIGGS: He’s the red, Hickey. He’s the agitator.

JOE KENEHAN: Everybody see I don’t got a gun on me?

HICKEY: What good do you think that’s going to do you, red?