John Sayles Interview

John Sayles: photo from

John Sayles brought his most recent film, Amigo, to AFI Fest in Los Angeles this week. I was able to interview the director about the film’s production history, historical context, and parallels to other military confrontations in history. Not surprisingly for anyone who knows the directors films, he was informed, thoughtful, and erudite. This interview originally appeared at AFI Fest NOW.

“You know, you can’t make a movie about war and occupation without it being about other wars and other occupations,” John Sayles told audiences at the North American premiere of Amigo when asked about parallels between the American military occupation of the Philippines and contemporary American involvement in Iraq. “I could have set a movie very much like this in a French town during the Vichy period during World War II when Nazis were occupying; I could have set it in Vietnam in 1969. I could have set it in Iraq five years ago. I could have set it in the American South in 1864 when the Union army came down and started taking over southern towns.”

For those well versed in the films of John Sayles, often praised for their rich evocation of local color and period detail, those words may seem startlingly un-Sayles like. When asked if Amigo is less dependent on specific setting than some of his other films, the director demurred. “What you always have to think about,” Sayles told AFI Now, “is that you have the specifics of a story and then there are the things that are just about human behavior.” Citing and recommending Charles Berkowitz’s Odysseus in America (narrated by frequent Sayles collaborator David Strathairn), which deals with responses of soldiers to works of classic Greek tragedy, Sayles suggested that human behavior in and during war may be constant enough to seem familiar to audiences across time, but insisted this doesn’t mean that stories about specific contexts for these behaviors don’t have distinctive features.

What are the specifics of this story that made Sayles want to set Amigo in the Philippines rather than during some other historical occupation? One feature of this conflict that made it so compelling was that this military and political action signaled a sea change in America’s self-conception: “We really had defined ourselves as an anti-imperialist country [….] We really thought of ourselves as, ‘We’re the people who are against empire.’ And, so, there was a bait and switch that happened in the Philippines where we went there ostensibly to help free the Filipino people from the domination of the Spaniards and did this absolute about face and ended up taking over the island and keeping it as a territory.”

Another distinctive of the time period and the conflict, for Sayles, is how “raw” the political and social rhetoric was that was used to justify imperialist actions: “The racism was overt. The Rudyard Kipling poem ‘Pick Up the White Man’s Burden,’ the subtitle of that poem is ‘America in the Philippines.’ And he’s saying ‘It’s our…not our white, Christian opportunity, but our white, Christian duty to straighten out these little dark people, and take over their country.” Perhaps because of the traditional anti-imperialist heritage and history of our country, more subsequent imperialist efforts have tended to be couched in euphemisms or to invoke the historical vocabularies (such as “winning hearts and minds”) from other times, such as the Revolutionary War period.

Amigo represents the act of occupation as military and political, but it is also shows how such actions rely upon the Church to provide a cultural and sociological justification for those actions so that the people engaging in them can continue to think of themselves as good people. When asked at the Toronto International Film Festival about Amigo’s mention of General Order 100, a document actually written during the American Civil War, Sayles characterized that historic document’s purpose as an attempt to say, “Although we’re slaughtering each other, and that’s the point of what we’re doing for us to win and for you to lose, we are still moral people.” He continued: “That’s what people who are slaughtering each other want to believe. They want to believe that there’s still a code. They want to be able to say, ‘God is looking down on us, and He approves of what we’re doing.’”

If that sounds more like a parallel to contemporary terrorists than contemporary political or military structures, the connecting thread is the “absolute” nature of the belief even more than the particular belief system that the imperialist (or rebel) holds to. While speaking bluntly about how institutional religion was part of the problem in the Philippines, Sayles insists that Padre Hidalgo, the Spanish missionary in Amigo, was not a “cynic” but a true-believer. “What he does is absolutely what he thinks should be done.” That kind of absolute certainty in the rightness of one’s moral position—and hence of one’s justification in actions taken in support of it—is not limited to any particular nationality or religion. “The true believers do as much damage as the cynics do.”

When asked if the film was pessimistic or even fatalistic about the possibility for change in human nature, Sayles said it was realistic, but he also suggested that people were less likely to “get involved in something after you’ve just been involved in something really awful.” Another historical difference between American involvement in the Philippines and some other, later wars was that it was the younger generation that really wanted that war. “There has to be a little period of forgetting,” he said, referring to the gap between the American Civil War and military action in the Philippines, “but it doesn’t have to be that long. Forty years isn’t that long for people to forget the true horror of the Civil War.”

If then, we as human beings have a tendency to renew mistakes of the past, a film like Amigo might, perhaps, delay for a little while the inevitable act of forgetting just how horrible were the consequences of wars past no matter how reasonable or idealistic the motives for fighting them seemed at the time.

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