My ‘must-see movie’ of the moment is Quezon’s Game. Having worked with wonderfully talented Matt Rosen, who directs this story of the rescue of more than a thousand Jews ahead of Germany’s Holocaust by Manuel L Quezon, with Raymond Bagatsing, whom I’ve had the pleasure of working with on two movies, I’m excited to see it.
Normally, my heart sinks when I hear ‘historical’ and ‘movie’ in the same sentence. Especially with Philippine movies where the historical advisors are not usually up-to-date on current scholarship, as in the case of Luna. I often prefer it when there is a historical connection by the actual facts don’t matter, as in Balangiga: Howling Wilderness, a wonderfully quirky movie with flying carabao which I thoroughly enjoyed.
In the case of Quezon’s Game there is good reason to expect a truthful rendition without being a documentary. Matt Rosen is Jewish, with some of the best Jewish jokes you can imagine, so the story is very close to his heart. While Quezon is depicted watching film of the Nazi death camps, which he could not possibly have seen at the time, how else would one show the results if Quezon had failed?
As many as 10,000 Jews were to be offered a place in the Philippines in Mindanao as farmers. There was opposition based on stereotypes of Jews not being farmers.
At a time when top lawyers in the Philippines like Ferdinand Topacio hang portraits of Hitler in their offices and deny the Holocaust ever happened, and the President of the Philippines can casually and coldly liken the Jews to drug addicts, a film like this is really needed.
But this was not the only time that Quezon, a brutal and astute political operator, reached out a hand to help those in trouble overseas.
It is 11.58am on 1 September 1923. Eight miles off the coast of Yokohama two great plates of the Earth’s surface slip suddenly against each other. Parts of the sea bottom dropped from a depth of 60 feet to 600 metres creating a tsunami 12 metres high that killed 60 people and destroyed 155 houses, but that was an infinitesimal part of the destruction that hit Yokohama and Tokyo.
The 7.9 magnitude earthquake hit a city that was busy cooking its mid-day meal. Then came another quakes, and another in under 13 minutes. Soon, thousands of wooden houses were aflame. Heated air rose from the flames, sucking in more and more fresh air like a blacksmith’s bellows on a furnace. The resultant firestorm sent fire tornadoes whipping through the cities, incinerating everything and everyone they touched.
Fleeing people were trapped by melting tarmacadam roads like flies on flypaper and died as they struggled vainly to escape. Some people tried to protect themselves by putting futons on their backs as they ran, but the intense heat set the bedding on fire.
Some 40,000 people gather in an open space, Rikugun Honjo Hifukusho, once a military clothing depot. of those only 2,000 survived. The rest perished in the heat and flames and by suffocation as the fire sucked the oxygen out of the air they breathed.
1,200 girls looked for safety in a large pond. Their bodies were found, boiled to death.
The quakes shattered the water mains leaving no means to extinguish the flames. By the time the flames were out two days later around 140,000,, 228,000 is one account, people were dead, comparable to the deaths and damage caused by the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 600,000 homes simply vanished in a swathe of destruction 160 kilometres long by 30 kilometres wide.
At that time, Manuel Quezon was Senate President. With Governor-General Leonard Wood’s approval, a 300 strong relief team of 300 Americans and 75 Filipinos were dispatched to Japan and were the first foreign help to arrive.
Members of Insular Government departments were told, “In the name of the Filipino people and the President of the Senate, the Hon. Manuel L Quezon, as authorized by His Excellency, the Governor-General” to make ‘voluntary’ contributions of between 0.25 pesos and 10 pesos towards helping Yokohama and Tokyo. The Philippine Health Service alone was expected to raise at least 2,000 pesos, a hefty sum at the time.
Quezon was better at producing humanitarian aid than he was at prognostication. In an interview with Edward Price Bell for the Chicago Daily News in 1925, Quezon pooh-hooed the idea that Japan would invade an independent Philippines and cited the help given in the 1923 catastrophe.
He was wrong, very wrong.