Cinema Asian America: Tom Coffman Discusses ‘The Rise of People Power’

This month Cinema Asian America on XFINITY On Demand features Hawaii-based filmmaker Tom Coffman‘s ground-breaking new documentary “Ninoy Aquino and the Rise of People Power.” It’s a portrait of the Philippine politician and activist who, through imprisonment, exile and his eventual assassination, led a non-violent movement to overthrow the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos. In addition to examining Philippine history, the film resonates with a timeliess alongside recent political uprisings in the Middle East and around the world. Coffman sat down to answer several questions about the film, and his work as a documentarian and researcher.

Discover more Cinema Asian America interviews here.

Ninoy Aquino’s life and work changed the course of Philippine politics, and in many ways brings together disparate strands of politics, history, activism and philosophy which have shaped the nation’s modern history. Tell us about what inspired you to make a film about Aquino, and what it seeks to say both about Aquino himself, but about the Philippines more broadly. My film is not particularly about Aquino and the Philippines per se but about Aquino, about the tormented relationship between the Philippines and the United States, and about the global struggle for democracy. In Manila people joke, “We had four hundred years of the Spanish and forty years of Hollywood.” Throw in another four years of Japan’s occupation during World War II and you have a horrendous history of colonialism that defined the nation called the Philippines, which was named for the Spanish King Philip. Aquino realized that he not only must overthrow the Conjugal Dictatorship of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos but create a national political culture and consciousness. As he struggled through his eight years of imprisonment, he began to realize that he had become a heroic symbol of the pro-democracy forces of not only his own country but East Asia.

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Aquino was assassinated in 1983, but his presence is still very much felt in the Philippines today. What were some of the unexpected aspects of his legacy which you uncovered through your research? Aquino is the root of contemporary nonviolent uprisings against authoritarian governments.  His legacy not only dominates the political culture of the Philippines, leading to the election of his wife and then his son as president, but inspired democracy movements in South Korea, China, Taiwan, and the various countries of Southeast Asia; and, further yet, has made its way around the globe. Consider that the noise barrage of Manila, in support of the imprisoned Aquino, occurred on April 6, 1978; the democracy movement that recently threw Mubarak out of Egypt was called the April the Sixth Movement. It was a descendant in tactical and inspirational terms. Before the Arab Spring there was Berlin, and before Berlin there was the Philippine uprising that resulted from Aquino’s martyrdom and teachings of nonviolence.

You are a writer, researcher and filmmaker; your body of books and films include many which examine the histories and politics of the Pacific, Asia, the USA, and the interconnections between these regions. What draws you to a subject? Psychologically, I live as much in the semi-separateness of Hawaii and the connectedness of the Pacific as I do in the United States. My concerns are the well-being of Hawai’I and the interaction between the United States as superpower and the countries of East Asia that populated Hawaii: Japan, China, Korea and the Philippines.

What are you working on now? I am researching previously untapped archives for a written history of how the community developed in Hawaii in such a way as to successfully resist pressures for a mass internment of the Japanese-ancestry population during World War II.


The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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