Controlling the Narrative: Historical Distortion and the Case of the Philippines

Thursday, October 13, 2022

University of Hong Kong historian Nicolo Ludovice examines the practice of historical distortion, focusing on the case of the Philippines, whose new president, Ferdinand Marcos, Jr, is the son of the authoritarian leader who ruled the country from 1965 until he was toppled from power in 1986.

Controlling the Narrative: Historical Distortion and the Case of the Philippines

No remembrance of things past?: Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr meets US President Joe Biden in New York, September 22 (Credit: Office of the Press Secretary)

Philippine historians were caught in a maelstrom when the film Maid in Malacañang (MIM) was released in early August 2022. The controversial movie drama depicts the final 72 hours of then-president Ferdinand E Marcos Sr and his family in Malacañan Palace, the nation’s seat of power. MIM sought to portray the Marcoses as though they were just another family in crisis: They were engulfed in turmoil and beset by anxiety while trying to make sense of what was going on. Claiming that the narrative was told from the perspective of “maids”, director Darryl Yap argues that the fictional account of the historic events leading to the family’s flight from the country, having lost the support of the military and the United States, aimed to “humanize” the Marcoses by depicting their “side of history”.

In the past, audiences and critics have shown leniency towards films or television shows based on a true story, allowing for the creative license. Historians understand that the reconstruction of the actual past, no matter how faithful it is to primary sources, cannot be possible without reimagining scenes. Even heavily-researched shows such as Netflix’s The Crown have been criticized for inaccuracy. The combination of respect for basic documented facts, sufficient scrutiny of sources, and restrained creativity that does not distort the real story is what distinguishes good renderings of history from works of fiction, fabulism or falsehood.

Fictional tale: The cast of the movie "Maid in Malacañang" (Credit: Darryl Yap on Facebook)

Fictional tale: The cast of the movie "Maid in Malacañang" (Credit: Darryl Yap on Facebook)

For its part, MIM raised so much concern among Philippine historians because of its apparent attempt to present historical distortions as valid and accurate. Its production entailed the willful manipulation of evidence and narratives to misrepresent events and people and advance a particular agenda. Clearly, there was pressure involved, whether financial, legal, political or cultural. More disconcerting for adherents to truth in storytelling was that the film’s producer was Imee Marcos, a senator, the elder of Marcos Sr’s two daughters, and the sister of the man who has been president of the country since June 30 this year, Ferdinand Marcos Jr, who is often referred to by his nickname, Bongbong. The new Philippine leader topped the May polls in a landslide, winning popular support in large part by convincing voters, particularly young people, that his father’s period in office had been something of a golden age in the nation’s development.

Rewriting history

In recent years around the world, examples of government-led historical distortion have surfaced more frequently and not without consequences. The 1776 Report that was commissioned under then-US president Donald Trump aimed to introduce a “more patriotic education” to counter conventional American historical narratives about slavery, progressivism, and the civil rights movement. Russian President Vladimir Putin used historical distortion to justify Moscow’s war against Ukraine aimed at denying the country’s sovereignty and nationhood. More recently, the Education Bureau of the Hong Kong Special Administration Government approved textbooks that assert that the city “was never a colony.”

While some historians argue that historical distortion undermines a society’s “moral fabric and cultural identity”, it does more than that when the government is involved. Historical distortion preserves the claims to power by a few. In the process, it undermines democratic and electoral processes, leading to the further disenfranchisement and exclusion of more vulnerable sectors. The political tensions in the US that erupted into violence on January 6, 2021, are a case in point – the result of deviant narratives that led to a coup attempt and subsequently prompted politicians in certain states, believers in the “Big Lie” of election fraud, to take measures to make it more difficult for certain people – mainly minorities – to vote.

For historians, the reconstruction of the past depends on the evidentiary sources that are left behind. While it is understood that we cannot fully give an entire and accurate picture of the past, it does not mean that we cannot discuss it. Historical research often uncovers more evidence, which may lead to the revision of histories written by other historians. Thus, revising history commonly happens to provide a more accurate account of the past.

The distortion of narratives, however, occurs when the resulting evidence paints individuals or parties in an undesirable light. The corruption and human rights abuses under the Marcos Sr regime have been definitively documented. Court proceedings in the Philippines and the United States convicted the Marcoses for numerous plunder and graft cases. Imee Marcos was very clear on this when asked about the significance of her brother’s presidential win: “What is most important is that we clear our family name, that my father’s legacy will be re-examined truthfully and fairly. That is foremost.”

Finale: With their son, the future president, beside them, Ferdinand Marcos Sr and wife Imelda serenaded supporters, hours before fleeing the country, February 25, 1986 (Credit: C Fernandez)

Finale: With their son, the future president, beside them, Ferdinand Marcos Sr and wife Imelda serenaded supporters, hours before fleeing the country, February 25, 1986 (Credit: C Fernandez)

And that is what she did with her film: It has portrayed a past that did not happen. Imee’s depiction as the “genius daughter” who bargained with the US embassy for the family’s escape was simply inaccurate. Their getaway did not happen calmly as the movie has it. While the Marcoses use of film as a medium to improve their image was not unique (e.g., Iginuhit ng Tadhana: The Ferdinand E. Marcos Story was released by her father as during his campaign for president in 1965), these distortions would not have been possible if Imee Marcos had not used her position as a public official to clean up her family’s murky record.

The effort at whitewashing the past has lead historians, archivists, academics and those who suffered during Marcos Sr’s regime to fear the destruction or disappearance of historical evidence. Weeks after Marcos Jr won the presidency, many rushed to protect history. Books that deal with the martial law abuses sold out. Carmelo Victor Crisanto, the executive director of the Human Rights Violations Victim’s Memorial Commission, felt compelled to digitize records. Local and international academics signed a manifesto vowing to combat all forms of historical distortion and protect academic freedom.

The rise of anti-intellectualism

Historical distortion is linked to the anti-intellectual turn (i.e., the general distrust of experts and intellectuals) against historians. While many scholars had connected it to the resurgence of conservative values, anti-intellectualism has flourished in recent years with the rise of populism, which is typically founded on the distrust of elites and the fundamental view that intellectual pursuits are elitist or exclusive. This perspective has emerged in other fields such as medicine and public health with Covid-19 when many in the public ignored or even attacked medical experts for their advice and pronouncements despite the evidence.

What is happening is tantamount to the democratization of history. The Philippines is reckoned to be “the social media capital of the world”. In this regard, it is easy for non-historians there, for whatever intent, to produce and spread accounts of history or historical narratives. The plethora of digital content – video clips, vlogs (video blogs) and the like – replace academic language with common parlance. Sources are not usually cited. As a result, distorted histories are consumed and pitted against carefully researched works.

Hence, it came as no surprise when an actress on the MIM cast claimed: “History is like tsismis [gossip]. It is filtered and is amended so we do not actually know what is the real history. The idea is there but so too is bias.” Professional historians and directors were quick to challenge that statement and to scrutinize the film. Among them was prizewinning historian and columnist Ambeth Ocampo who posted on his social media page: “History may have bias but it is biased on fact, not opinion. Real history is about truth, not lies, not fiction.” Another historian, Xiao Chua, said: “You can say that she has a point. There is only one [thing] missing. Everything should be based on evidence.”

Celebrating history: Jubilation at the fall and flight of the dictator, February 26, 1986 (Credit: PSSC)

Celebrating history: Jubilation at the fall and flight of the dictator, February 26, 1986 (Credit: PSSC)

In an unprecedented turn, Marcos supporters launched vicious attacks on the historians, denouncing them as “biased”, “dilawan/pinklawan” (yellow/pink fanatics, the two colors being associated with the opposition), and “stupid”, among other epithets. This is truly disconcerting because reputable scholars who have dedicated their professional careers to study history were suddenly being shamed and vilified. Despite the presentation of concrete historical evidence, trolls and zealous Marcos loyalists dismissed the films critics as propagandists and called on the dissolution of the historical profession itself. “I don’t believe that historians should be a profession,” Yap the director declared. “I believe that historians are researchers. They retrieve information but for them to say that everything that they say is 100 percent true and without any personal bias is something that I can’t agree with.”

The impact of anti-intellectualism was evident in the democratic electoral practices in the country. In a 2022 report, voter turnout in the 2022 Philippine presidential elections is largely credited to the massive (dis)information infrastructure put together by the Marcoses. Their own versions of history were carefully crafted by digital content managers, vloggers and troll farms. This brigade of malintents produced not only pro-Marcos content but also distorted narratives about the opposition. They spun tall tales such as the lie that Marcos Sr (who lived from 1917 to 1989) was the long lost son of the Philippines’ national hero Jose Rizal (1861-1896) and that the two established the World Bank. Such falsehoods found a ready and willing audience.

Perpetuating abuse and injustice

Perhaps most distressing is the impact of historical distortion on the victims and survivors of Marcos Sr’s martial law rule from 1972 to 1981. Amnesty International has documented extensive human rights violations during that period. Over 50,000 people were arrested, forcibly detained, tortured, killed and disappeared. Those arrested included opposition leaders, teachers, members of the clergy, labor leaders, students and journalists. Even after those nine years, human rights abuses continued.

There were other cases of hardship and suffering under the Marcos Sr administration. Forty percent of Filipino families lived in poverty when the Marcos administration took over in 1965, compared with 60 percent at its end. By then, the daily wages of agricultural workers had declined by 30 percent, while the price of goods had tripled.

Never forget: Marking the 50th anniversary of the imposition of martial law by then-president Ferdinand Marcos, Sr (Credit: Luis Dela Cruz / Shutterstock.com)

Still, the Marcoses have steadfastly refused to recognize the abuses and the dismal governance record. Instead, they insist that the period was a benevolent and prosperous time, pointing to the construction of grand infrastructure projects. Their supporters celebrate what they claim to be the “general peace and security” during the regime. MIM conveniently leaves out the political and economic context of why the Marcoses had to flee in the first place.

Historical distortion may seem to confirm the adage that “history is written by the victors”. In a sense, this is true. After all, history is an exercise of power. History is power. And those with power typically control the narrative. Yet, there is an ethic that is integral to the writing of history. A story crafted without evidence is but a memory built on lies. Without verifiable sources, it simply erases the blemishes, injustices and crimes that such manipulation aims to cover up or erase.

Distorted narratives perpetuate the abuses and the harm by denying their existence. In reaction to the MIM, film director Joel Lamangan, who was imprisoned and tortured during the martial law years, said, “They [the MIM producers] want the people to take pity on Marcos Sr, while in reality he was more preoccupied with how to take out the stolen money, how to smuggle the gold, or how to transport their valuables. Are they willing to show that? Because if they do, I will applaud this film!”

The writing of history should not remain a purely intellectual exercise. Since it can be used as instruments of influence to justify policies, manipulate sentiments and whitewash injustices, historians must wield this power to push back against forms of distortion and falsification. Even amidst charges of presentism (i.e., the tendency to interpret the past in the context of the present and using current standards and values), historians cannot sit in ivory towers and must keep abreast with current concerns, call out distortions publicly, and engage with people through digital platforms, just as the fabulists do.

Combatting historical distortion in the age of social media is an urgent matter, not just for historians but for every responsible citizen. As Filipino journalist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Maria Ressa put it, Philippine society has been sentenced to “death by a thousand cuts”, where false information and history manipulate people and their realities. And while many would claim history as having many sides and perspectives (“alternative facts”), it is still possible – indeed essential – to differentiate history from propaganda.

Opinions expressed in articles published by AsiaGlobal Online reflect only those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of AsiaGlobal Online or the Asia Global Institute


Nicolo Ludovice

Nicolo Ludovice

The University of Hong Kong and Ateneo de Manila University

Nicolo Ludovice is a lecturer in the Department of History at The University of Hong Kong and in the Health Sciences Program of Ateneo de Manila University. His research interests broadly cover animal history, the history of science, technology and medicine including biomedicine, public health, and zoonoses, and the histories of food and foodways, with the Philippines as his geographical focus.

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