By Andrew Hamlin
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
The historical epic “Quezon’s Game” opens with a 1944 newsreel unfolding in a small screening room. The Allies, says the narrator, have pushed back against the Nazis in Europe, and liberated the horrifying death camps in the process. We’re still working through, says the narrator, the unspeakable, perhaps incomprehensible, nature of those extermination camps.
A man watches the screen, hunched over in a wheelchair. An elegant woman sits beside him.
“Could I have done more?” the man wonders aloud.
And the rest of Matthew Rosen’s film travels back in time, to answer this question.
The man in the wheelchair, we learn, is Manuel L. Quezon (played by Raymond Bagatsing), president of the Philippines. As we travel back to the late 1930s, we find him healthier, ambulatory, and feisty, with his wife Aurora (Rachel Alejandro) often by his side. He meets, greets, shakes hands, makes plans, frets about the economy, about the war that many say is coming, and about his country being under the thumb of the United States—independence is on the horizon, but not due for another several years.
He also frets about the Nazis. Stories about Nazi Germany’s treatment of Jews under Hitler are even then, starting to filter out, making their way as far as Manila.
Philanthropy can sprout in the oddest of places. In this case, it begins as discussions over all-night poker games.
Cigar maker Alex Frieder (Billy Ray Gallion) has heard the stories about Germany, too. And he believes the Philippines can, and should, set up a program of asylum for the persecuted Jews.
Quezon quickly agrees. But the plan is audacious and rife with strife. The United States still controls Quezon’s land, meaning that it can interfere with, or outright block, any plan that Quezon makes. The president also faces pushback from his own people. Surely, say his political friends, the rest of the world will take in the Jews if they really need taking in. How is this our problem? Won’t opening our borders to people halfway around the world set a dangerous precedent?
Also, although this will be painful for both Filipinos and Anglos to recall, prejudice and hatred aren’t limited to Nazi Germany. Anti-Semitism runs through both Philippine and U.S. culture. And Filipinos, even politicians, and dignitaries, had to use the “colored” bathrooms when they visited the U.S. president at the White House.
The film does quite well depicting the encroaching nature of intolerance. Such things don’t hit all at once, like a hammer coming down. But, one day, it’s everyone at the German embassy having to bark “Heil Hitler” and fly the Nazi flag. A short time later, Jews are being refused entry to the Germany embassy’s restaurant. Trickle by trickle, the horror grows.
It’s also quite honest about how easy it’s always been to do nothing in the face of need. The political arguments against helping the Jews all made sense to a substantial portion of the people. We don’t want Jews. We don’t need Jews. Accepting Jews will put a strain on our economy and/or take jobs away from people already here. Are the Nazis really so bad? Why don’t we let someone else solve the problem?
All compelling arguments. Compelling, that is, that bad people outnumber the good in this world, and always have.
But Quezon sees the danger, and sees the right thing to do. He’s hampered by the Americans, by his own party, and sometimes, by the people closest to him. But he remains determined to do the right thing and find a way through.
Could he, indeed, have done more?
That specific question remains up in the air (although the film answers it in a form). The last thing you see on screen, though, is the testimony from Jews—real people, not actors—who came over when they were children. (They’ll be getting their own documentary TV special, “The Last Manilaners.”)
They’re matter-of-factly grateful for their lives, and their families’ lives. Quezon surely did enough for them and theirs.
“Quezon’s Game” opens on Jan. 31 at theaters in Seattle and Olympia. Check local listings for venues, prices, and showtimes.
Andrew can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.