The first Filipinos to arrive in North America, came on a Spanish galleon that arrived in what is now Morro Bay, California in 1587. Filipinos have a long history in what is now the United States and, if you don’t know US history in depth, you probably won’t realize that at one time, including during World War II, Filipinos were US nationals much in the same way that citizens of Guam, America Samoa and Puerto Rico are. That means some of them served in the US military, but that was during a time of legalized racism. “A Long March” is about the trials and tragedy of Filipinos caught between changing national boundaries and this specifically looks at two legal cases. There is so much information that the film is trudges rather than marching briskly toward a conclusion.
According to this documentary, over 1.2 million people claim Filipinos claim they served, but less than 20 percent of them were added to the official roster and women were excluded. Except for nurses, no Filipina was recognized as having served in the US military. Among those excluded and denied backpay, GI benefits and citizenship (after the reversion of the Philippines to independence), were Celestino Almeda, Rudy Panagilma and Feliciana Reyes.
According to The FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) Project, Feliciana Reyes had served as a guerrilla and submitted a FOIA request to the Department of Education for records concerning the Filipino Veterans Equity Compensation Fund (Reyes v. United States Department of Education). At the time the case was filmed (27 November 2017), Reyes was in her nineties. The case was closed 29 June 2018. Reyes died 22 December 2018. According to the Legacy.com obituary, she served in the “Medical Corps of the 75th Infantry Regiment, 7th Military District in Negros Oriental, a force ‘recognized’ by General MacArthur.”
Celestino Almeda, a leader in the Filipino World War II veterans fight for US recognition just died on 27 March 2022 at the age of 104.
Rudy Panaglima had been particularly vocal during the previous presidential administration. Then President Barack Obama had authorized the Filipino World War II Veterans Parole Program in 2016 and that allowed Panaglima and thousands of other veterans living in the US to be reunited with family from the Philippines, but Trump ended the program.
The documentary also looks at the case of Juliet T. Tagupa v. McDonald. Tagupa of Richmond, Virginia was the surviving spouse of Luis Tagupa, but the Veterans Affairs declared that “her husband did not have qualifying military service to establish status as a veteran of the US Armed Forces.”
While I like legal dramas and documentaries, “A Long March” is too slow and ponderous to be recommended. This is a feature-length debut documentary for T.S. Botkin, who also wrote the script. However, I suspect Botkin could have used a more critical eye and input from other sources to tighten up and streamline the storytelling.
If you groan about every new World War II story, remember that there are still untold stories of many war heroes. I’m not sure if we need more war stories that center on White male protagonists, and while increasingly the stories of Black veterans are being told, the stories of women and Asian American and Pacific Islander heroes have not yet reached Hollywood or major studios in a meaningful way. Filipinos have been part of US history since the beginning of European intrusion into Native American cultures and the Filipino stories need to be told. “A Long March” attempts to introduce the story of Filipino veterans into the US national narrative of World War II, but not in a way that is intriguing or engrossing. The Filipinos were Americans and, like many non-White people of that era, the US didn’t do right by them. We need to have more documentaries and fictional features about Filipinos, and “A Long March” is a start, but one hopes for better films in the future.
“A Long March” made its world premiere at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival on 10 May 2022.