What would one of the Philippines’ greatest revolutionaries do in this pandemic?
On this day, June 19, in 1861, a Filipino icon was born. This well-traveled intellectual not only helped liberate the Philippines with his beliefs and words but also put the country on the global map. Statues and monuments were erected all over Europe in honor of his name: Dr. José Protacio Rizal Mercado y Alonso Realonda. He was the voice of the Filipino then, and he is the face of the Filipino now.
It was a difficult time in the Philippines when the mestizo nationalist was brought into the world. The Spanish rule was oppressive, and abuses were all too common, from sexual abuse to the deprivation of education to Filipinos, from Polo y Servicio, forced labor without compensation, to heavy taxations. Rizal was the spark that ignited change for the country. But what exactly kindled Rizal’s patriotic flames? Europe. In Noli Me Tangere, he worded this epiphany, this awakening of sorts, as el demonio de las comparaciones, the specter of comparisons as translated by the Philippine Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2017.
As his pursuit of further studies led him to Europe, where his mind and ideologies broadened, Rizal, like Crisostomo Ibarra, the lead character in Noli Me Tangere, developed a longing for a higher form of patriotism, triggered by the living conditions in the places he had visited in Europe, countries whose systems and culture seemed worthy of emulation. Europe is, of course, known then and now as the continent of reason, science, progress, and arts. His stay in Europe sated his hunger for knowledge and adventure. Along the way, he had also forged long-lasting and invaluable friendships, one of which was with Ferdinand Blumentritt in what is now Litoměřice in the Czech Republic. Rizal, touched after having heard about a professor in Heidelberg studying Tagalog and having published text on the language, found a mentor and companion in Blumentritt.
Rizal’s European expedition was long, and because of his impact on the places he had visited, the trip was well-documented. At present, in commemoration of the polymath’s 160th birth anniversary, a new documentary following his European exploits will be released. Finding Rizal in a Time of Barriers is a project inspired by former senator, now deputy speaker of the House of Representatives Loren Legarda’s tour of the small German town, Wilhelmsfeld, with Dr. Fritz Hack Ullmer, two years ago.
But what exactly kindled Rizal’s patriotic flames? Europe. In Noli Me Tangere, he worded this epiphany, this awakening of sorts, as el demonio de las comparaciones.
In 1886, it was the great grandfather of Dr. Ullmer, Pastor Karl Ullmer, who hosted Rizal, a friend of the family’s, for three months. Through three generations Rizal’s correspondence and memorabilia had become part of their legacy.
“Rizal lived in a time of barriers created by skin color, religion, political ideologies, and colonialism. Yet he broke through these barriers to affirm his humanity and his genius,” explains Loren Legarda. It was on his first trip to Germany that Rizal wrote the immortal poem, A Las Flores De Heidelberg. Likewise, Rizal completed the publication of one of his greatest works, Noli Me Tángere, in the same Western European country.
Legarda stressed that the story had to come home. “It is so resonant for all of us whose lives have been changed by the pandemic. We draw inspiration from Rizal, a Filipino traveling through Europe in the late 19th century who overcame many obstacles,” she said. The documentary presents Rizal’s first undertaking in Europe, the obstacles he overcame, and the wisdom on humanity that he had acquired. “He grew—as an intellectual, a scientist and doctor, as a human being in the company of other human beings who valued his personhood and intellect more than they did his race or skin color. With hope, through Rizal’s story, we find the means to overcome the barriers we face today.”
For the creative director of the film, Floy Quintos, the process of completing the documentary was a means of coming to terms with the pandemic. Historians Prof. Ambeth Ocampo and Dr. Mila Guerrero interpreted aspects of this significant journey of Rizal through Germany and contextualized facts that were often regarded as mere trivia. The narration of Dr. Ullmer makes the video more personal. He tenderly recounts the memories passed on to him by his grandparent who was only 14 when Rizal stayed in their home.
The global health crisis halted the production of the video last year. The project, however, plodded on, thanks to the perseverance and collective efforts of the Philippine Embassy in Berlin headed by Ambassador Tess Dizon de Vega, the Philippine Consulate General in Frankfurt, Germany, led by Consul General Evelyn Austria Garcia, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), and the Office of Deputy Speaker Loren Legarda, supervised by the three-term former senator, deputy speaker, and current Antique congresswoman. It was Loren who conceptualized the documentary.
Finding Rizal in a Time of Barriers comes out on ABS-CBN News Channel today, at 7 p.m. It will live-stream simultaneously on ABS-CBN News YouTube channel and the Facebook Pages of the DFA, National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), and the Office of Deputy Speaker Loren Legarda. A replay will be aired the following day, June 20, at 4 p.m. on ANC.