An under-recognised area of Holocaust history gets an airing with this Filipino-made historical drama chronicling President Quezon’s struggles to offer Jewish families refuge from the Nazis in the early part of World War II. It’s a little-known story which means writer-director Matthew Rosen’s debut feature has to strain to explain the specific political context, to the film’s detriment.
We start in 1938 when the Philippines is two years into a decade-long transition to gain full independence from the US, so America still controls visa restrictions on new arrivals. The country’s elected leader, Manuel Quezon, needs to keep Washington sweet since invasion by the Japanese is a very real prospect, but tension looms when a Jewish cigar-maker in Manila suggests inviting Jewish professionals from Germany to help the Philippines’ much-needed modernisation. The US administration has already refused entry to German Jewish refugees, so can they be persuaded to allow them into the Philippines?
It’s an intriguing set-up, though the movie unfortunately makes heavy weather of moving the drama forward. There’s lots of clunky dialogue exchanges in the corridors of power, but little action to go with it, and fake vintage newsreels with not-altogether-convincing narration to help Rosen get his points across. Raymond Bagatsing is a handsome, if dramatically inert, presence as the earnest Quezon, and the movie’s reverent portrayal loses much sense of an actual human being behind the worthy aspirations.
Still, the material is fascinating enough to keep us watching, and a Hollywood version of the story might have played down the anti-Semitism in Washington which refused entry to Jewish refugees desperate to escape Germany. Stricken with tuberculosis, Quezon himself was battling against time, and his actions also stand in marked contrast to the iniquities of his country’s subsequent national leaders.
There’s a history worth revisiting here, yet given such laboured treatment, the film struggles to engage. It’s a learning experience which leaves us with mixed feelings: might a documentary have better succeeded in clarifying the issues without losing grip on the events’ emotional legacy?