***** BY MICHELLE CHERMAINE RAMOS *****
If you knew you had very little time left to live, how would you make it count? If ever there was a movie worthy of boasting with the often overused exclamation “proud to be Filipino”, Quezon’s Game definitely delivers with its magnitude and timeless message of hope, love and the bravery of adhering to one’s moral convictions against all opposition in an indifferent world. Filipinos can be justifiably proud that once upon a time in their small nation’s tumultuous colonial history, they had a president who not only fought for them, but also valiantly fought to offer sanctuary to the persecuted Jews during the holocaust when other nations did not. This battle was not won with brute force, but with carefully calculated shrewd tactics maneuvering the complex local and international political landscapes of that time. Quezon’s Game is a brilliant historical drama and feature film directorial debut by British Jewish director Matthew Rosen which has swept 25 awards at international film festivals. Its release in U.S/Canadian theatres also marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz on January 27, 2020. The main languages are English and Tagalog with some Spanish and German subtitled in English.
Near the end of the 1930s, when Philippine-based Jewish cigar magnate Alex Frieder (Billy Ray Gallion) receives a message from the Chinese ambassador (Jeremy Domingo) in Germany about the Jews being persecuted by Nazis, he asks his friend Manuel L. Quezon (Raymond Bagatsing), the President of the Commonwealth of the Philippines, to grant the refugees asylum in the Philippines. However, with the country under American rule, the United States controls its borders and enforces a strict quota on the number of visas it will issue to foreigners on top of the not so hidden anti-Semitism from some high-ranking officials. As time runs out for the Jewish refugees with no countries willing to take them, President Quezon and Alex Frieder along with their close friends American diplomat Paul McNutt (James Paoleli) and Lt. Col. (and future American president) Dwight D. Eisenhower (David Bianco) decide to take matters into their own hands by devising their rescue strategy behind closed doors over games of poker at Malacañang palace. As the friends face one frustrating setback after another, Quezon discovers that he too is running out of time with the sudden relapse of his tuberculosis. Determined to make the remainder of his life count, he shrewdly orchestrates his brilliant game plan to corner the United States into opening his country’s borders allowing him to save the lives of over 1,200 Jews. The Open Doors monument now stands in Israel in honor of Quezon and the Filipino people for condemning the holocaust and offering hospitality when the Jews most needed it.
Raymond Bagatsing shines in his emotionally riveting portrayal of President Quezon successfully bringing the iconic leader to life making him relatable to today’s audience. Credit also goes to the other cast members for their stellar performances in their respective roles. The film makes you feel like a fly on the wall with a front row seat watching history unfold as maneuvered by the key players in a complicated political landmine. The first time I heard about this piece of history was in 2015 from a Canadian Jewish politician who remarked that it was unfortunate that few Filipinos are aware of this story. Why this is not widely taught in the history books and overlooked is mindboggling. More people know about Schindler’s list but are oblivious to the pivotal role Quezon and the Philippines played during the holocaust.
I have never been this excited to watch a Filipino movie and after watching all the way through the final credits, I could not recommend this enough. A lot of thought has obviously been put into the research, script and directorial approach to the narrative. The soundtrack itself is even more so poignant since the songs were composed by concentration camp survivors. Make sure you stick around and watch the end credits to see video testimonies of Jewish refugees Quezon rescued from the Holocaust and listen to the original theme song’s thoughtfully written lyrics and emotional renditions in English by Jewish singer Shulem and in Tagalog by Rachel Alejandro who plays Aurora Quezon.
Quezon’s Game is a long overdue yet very fitting cinematic tribute to a great man of principle who not only gained his country’s independence for his own people, but also took a stand against the Nazis for the Jews when no one else would, and in doing so boldly defied the United States, while risking alienating his own cabinet despite struggling with his failing health because he strongly believed in the sanctity of human life.
Filipinos need to know that they have something to be truly proud of beyond the usual food festivals and ubiquitous singing contests and beauty pageants in the diaspora. More importantly, the rest of the world needs to know and remember that Quezon took a burden that was not his to bear and that the Filipino people protested for a cause greater than the Philippines itself on the world stage. This story needs to be told – and retold. May this movie inspire and give rise to more people and future leaders with an unshakable moral compass and respect for the sanctity of life. Our world needs this story now more than ever.
INTERVIEW WITH DIRECTOR MATTHEW ROSEN
MICHELLE: What brought you to the Philippines?
MATTHEW: In 1984 I was offered a job by a British producer as cinematographer on a TV project that was being shot in Manila. He was my favorite producer and a good friend. I liked to travel when I was younger and had always wanted to see Asia. It all seemed to fall into place, so I took the one-year project. During that year I fell in love with the country, the people and my wife. So, I stayed.
MICHELLE: How did you go about your research in bringing these historical figures to life?
MATTHEW: Lori, my wife and I researched this story for a few years prior to starting development in earnest. We had a fairly clear idea of the events but not the personalities of the people involved. To understand the personalities we were portraying, we approached surviving family members. Particularly Quezon’s grandson, Manuel Quezon III who was an absolute wealth of information. To understand better the local and foreign political landscapes we had an excellent researcher Janice Perez, whose work was so comprehensive she became a scriptwriter together with my son, Dean, who concentrated on writing the English dialogue.
MICHELLE: What challenges if any did you anticipate and what were you looking for in the right actor when casting Quezon?
MATTHEW: I feel acting is the most important element of directing. I often spend considerably more time casting a production than I do shooting it, which was very much the case with this production. We knew that the key role in this movie was Quezon. If we did not find a convincing Quezon, we did not have a movie. Raymond Bagatsing was always a frontrunner for the role as he looked very similar to Quezon.
When we started casting, he was under contract for a long-running Philippine TV show and we could not squeeze a reading into his tight schedule. We continued casting but every actor really needed to bounce off of Quezon, so it was very difficult to finalize anyone for a role until we found our Quezon. Raymond finally found time to come to the production office and read through some lines with me. Almost immediately Lori and I knew we had a movie. We had been reading quite a few people for the role and the whole team knew exactly what I was looking for. When Raymond finished his reading everyone in the room knew that delivery was exactly what I was after and they all clapped. Partly from appreciation and partly from relief. I remember Raymond was visibly shocked. No-one I know has ever had an ovation after a reading. After we fitted Raymond into the lead role, the rest of the actors began to fit nicely. I feel really privileged and lucky we were able to get such talented actors for the project.
MICHELLE: You can feel the closeness between Quezon and his family and his solid friendship with his collaborators on screen. Are you in touch with the Quezons or Frieders or did you get any input from any of the main characters’ descendants regarding how they were going to be portrayed on screen?
MATTHEW: Rachel Alejandro who played Aurora Quezon was one of the first people we read for the role, but one of the last to be awarded. This was not because her reading was not excellent, it was, and after watching the movie it is quite clear, because the chemistry between the two of them is superb. However, their relationship was very complex, and I wanted a very particular swinging polarity between the two of them. After we decided Raymond was our Quezon, we went through many callbacks with different possible Auroras. We were blessed with so many excellent actresses that could have filled the role, but Rachel was able to land that strong, soft, loving, hating Aurora I was after. It is the strong characters of the couple that makes for the deepest drama and lightest moments in the script. We needed the most versatile of actors to pull it off and I think they are both absolutely perfect.
All the actors worked very hard on their roles. They all took time to really research. There is quite a lot of newsreel footage of Quezon. Raymond studied them all. David Bianco studied Eisenhower sending me loads of references finalizing his look and persona. The very powerful and moving speech Paul McNutt delivers in the hearing towards the end of the movie was actually written by James Paolelli, the actor who plays McNutt. He asked if he could try writing the speech as he felt the character he had studied would approach the speech in a different way. The speech he wrote was truly excellent and truly sounded like the speech of a future President.
MICHELLE: Why do you feel that Quezon’s story had to be told now?
MATTHEW: The timing of this project was really not planned at all. I have had the idea for this movie for over a decade. It just so happened it was completed last year. It seems like this story is always timely and it will be timeless. There will always be time to remember and take heed of the horrors of bigotry, and there will always be time for us to cheer for the strength of good people that choose to risk everything for what is right.
MICHELLE: A movie like this will spark conversations about open doors. Unfortunately, many countries such as Canada and European nations who opened their borders have inadvertently also let in certain migrants who seek to impose their religious ideologies in the host countries. Some feel it is their religious right to demand that the host countries accommodate their practices or risk being labelled “intolerant” or “racist”. It seems like political correctness if taken to the extreme will be the death of western culture. Therefore, we cannot draw a parallel between the Jewish Holocaust refugees and certain extremist migrant refugee groups in the current climate around the world who seek to dominate the host countries. So, just to clear things up for everyone…how did the Jews assimilate into the Philippines? And how deeply integrated into the local culture and society is the current population of Jews there right now?
MATTHEW: In the short time the refugees lived in Manila before the Japanese invasion in 1940 was extremely positive. They all found work independently or in existing Filipino/Jewish businesses that were thriving in Manila at the time. Quezon started to build a new city for them to thrive as business people and pass on technology to Filipinos in Mindanao but unfortunately this city was never finished. During the Japanese occupation the Jewish refugees had a very hard time. Most were left penniless and homeless, as were many Filipinos. Although several Jewish families tried staying, most eventually found their way to Israel or America. Christians, Protestants, Muslims, Jews, Chinese, European, America… numerous religions and cultures all thrive together in the Philippines. All are mostly civil to each other. Any culture seems to be tolerated and no culture seems to impose on any other. There are fundamentalists in the south, but they are recognized as fundamentalists rather than a race, religion or culture.
MICHELLE: What do you hope the audience will take away from watching this movie?
MATTHEW: I grew up in England through the 60s and 70s. As a Jew, I was set upon by racist thugs many times. My father used to tell me England was still one of the safest places in Europe to live for Jews. I accepted bigotry as part of the human condition. However, after living in the Philippines for almost 40 years I have never experienced bigotry or distrust as either a Jew or an Englishman. There is no bigotry here…none. I think it is important to tell the world that bigotry is not part of the human condition – it is cultural, and the Filipino culture has none. The most important thing to me is that the audience is entertained. I would like the audience to laugh at the humor, cry at the drama, feel broken at our heroes’ losses and cheer at their gains. Most of all I would like every Filipino to leave the theater swelling with pride as a Filipino. This is a story to be proud of, and it needed to be told.
INTERVIEW WITH RAYMOND BAGATSING
MICHELLE: You are of Filipino, Indian, Persian, Chinese and Spanish descent. Which sides of your family did those come from? How in touch are you with those facets of your ethnicity?
RAYMOND: The Indian is from the father’s side. Chinese from my mother. Spanish – both. I am very Filipino at heart. Western Intellect. My spiritual path and practice is from Tantric Indian, which consists of predominantly a vegetarian diet, daily meditation and yoga practice.
MICHELLE: How and why did you get into martial arts? What was the first style you trained in?
RAYMOND: I’ve always had a fascination for Martial Arts and have been drawn to these types of films ever since cinema entered my young consciousness. I had some bullying in elementary school. This added to my interest in self defence. I was 12 when I began my formal Wing Chun Kung Fu training in Melbourne, Australia. It was the school of Bruce Lee’s classmate under Master Yip Man, Master William Cheung. I then proceeded to expand into Kickboxing, Capoeira, Krav Maga, Aikido, Jiu Jitsu and more. My basic Jiu jitsu is Brazilian mixed with Japanese style. Growing up in Melbourne Australia during teenage years was pretty tough. As I mentioned earlier, bullying was part of those years.
MICHELLE: As a martial artist with your background in uniquely diverse traditional styles in addition to your experience in mixed martial arts now… do you believe that nurturing some type of spirituality is essential for a martial arts student’s character development? Or should the martial arts focus purely on combative techniques and do away with forms and tradition to be considered effective in this modern world? What’s your view on this?
RAYMOND: Martial arts is ever evolving. To me it began as an interest in the combative side, as it transcended into something beyond the physical. Much like research going beyond matter. From the crude towards the subtle. My martial arts journey actually took me within its spiritual depths. It further led me on The Tantra Way of life, through deeper research into the highest forms of martial arts. I became a daily meditator, a vegetarian, a yoga teacher and a spiritual seeker because of martial arts. I have so much to be grateful for from martial arts. It has led me into the depths of spirituality.
MICHELLE: Prior to making Quezon’s Game, were you aware of the story of Quezon rescuing the Jews?
RAYMOND: I was not that familiar with Manuel Quezon, because of my Australian education. I knew his name, but not his background or how he looked like.
MICHELLE: What challenges if any did you find in fleshing out Quezon on screen? Did you get a chance to speak with Quezon’s relatives for any input?
RAYMOND: The opportunity of playing Manuel Quezon was a daunting task, really. I only had a month to research him and his involvement with the Jews from the holocaust. He had limited video materials online/YouTube, mostly photos or voice recordings. I had to gather a Frankenstein-like creation of my character portrayal from bits and pieces of limited information I could find about the president. Even information about his involvement with the Jews were limited. Intuition played an integral part in this collaboration. I did not get the privilege of speaking with the president’s relatives, no. That would have been ideal.
MICHELLE: Has playing this role impacted or changed you personally in an unexpected way? If so, how?
RAYMOND: Wonderful question. Portraying a bigger than life persona, such as Manuel Quezon, did influence my personality in subtle ways. It may have added to a degree, a certain awareness of how I conduct myself in public – being more aware of personifying that gentlemanly statesman quality, I suppose.
MICHELLE: If you could magically meet and have lunch with President Quezon, what would you ask or tell him?
RAYMOND: If I had the honour of dining with President Manuel Quezon, I would be mesmerised and speechless, for sure. Once this magical reality has finally sunk in, I’m sure I’ll have spontaneous questions to ask him. I trust the intuition of being present in the now to further spark inspired conversations.
MICHELLE: In your opinion, what do you think is the true measure of a great leader?
RAYMOND: Hmm…I suppose a true leader should be quite grounded and deeply connected to the people he is to serve.
MICHELLE: Without giving anything away, what is your favorite line in this movie? Can be yours or another actor’s.
RAYMOND: “Could I have done more? “
MICHELLE: What do you hope people will take away from watching Quezon’s Game?
RAYMOND: I hope that this film inspires that understanding, that we are one, regardless of race, colour or culture. That we should not limit help and assistance only to the familiar.
MICHELLE: A hundred years from now, how would you like people to describe you and your legacy? What do you hope to be remembered for?
RAYMOND: Wow, legacy sounds quite grand. I’d like to believe I don’t aim for any legacy, but if I would like to be remembered for something a hundred years from now – ‘He trusted and surrendered to the Universe ‘.
MICHELLE: What advice do you have for aspiring actors?
RAYMOND: The truer you can be to yourself, the better an actor you will be. Yet, seeking self truth can be quite a deceiving journey.
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