Are we worth dying for?

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Are we worth dying for?

By Joseph L. Garcia

Virtual Reality
‘The Future of History: Virtual Reality’
Ayala Museum, Makati Ave., Makati City

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FOR THE ANNIVERSARY of Jose Rizal’s birth on June 19, Ayala Museum laid out a feast for all the senses to celebrate the country’s national hero.

Although really, the purpose of the small luncheon was to launch its “The Future of History: Virtual Reality” (VR) experience, it’s worthy to note that the buffet spread out: pancit, boiled eggs, champorado (chocolate porridge), and tuyo (dried fish) were all foodstuffs associated with Jose Rizal. Pancit was a food sent to him by his family when he was feeling homesick, while Rizal’s diary notes tuyo as a favored breakfast item when he was younger. Meanwhile, boiled eggs were given him as a last meal right before his execution on Dec. 30, 1896. The champorado spoke less about Rizal’s actual life and more about the legends his story has spawned — according to notes attached to the pot of champorado, an elementary textbook published after Rizal’s life and death claimed that the man invented champorado by accident after spilling his hot chocolate in his rice as a young boy, and along with it spilled out a hasty excuse for his family (definitely not factual, for Mexico has its own chocolate-based drink named the same). This would be one of the more prosaic legends about Rizal, considering that in recent times, conspiracy theories have linked him to the Jack the Ripper murders in the 19th century, as well as claiming him to be fascist dictator Adolf Hitler’s father (via a one-night stand Jose Rizal supposedly had in Vienna).

Sweeping away the mists of legend reveals a man — albeit one of above-average, perhaps even extraordinary intelligence, earning perfect grades in the Ateneo Municipal de Manila (while earning above-average grades at the University of Sto. Tomas), achieving a license to practice medicine from Madrid, and establishing a successful medical practice in the Philippines. In between all of this, he had time for several love affairs. He was also an artist, and, despite all that he had already done, wrote two novels (just in case you forgot: Noli me Tangere and El Filibusterismo) that helped spark a revolution which formed the Philippines as it is today. This contribution of his to the concept of national consciousness and identity eventually led to charges of rebellion, sedition, and conspiracy, ultimately leading to his execution in present-day Luneta.

The VR experience at the Ayala Museum (made in cooperation with I AM Cardboard, the world’s provider of Google Cardboard VR headsets) seeks to immerse a viewer completely in Rizal’s world. A short film by Marco Biemann puts the viewer in the shoes of a spectator at Rizal’s execution, and then a member of the firing squad, and finally, Jose Rizal himself. Through the VR goggles, one has a 360-degree view of the scenery, shot at La Mesa Dam, according to the project’s consultant, historian and academic Ambeth Ocampo. Throughout the short film, there were moments of unease (as an audience member, you’re holding hands with an older woman), fear, and guilt, and then finally, some tranquility and meditation. As for the experience itself, this writer didn’t care much to be the spectator, and was frightened by the prospect of being a shooter. This writer looked downards and was surprised to find myself headless, before finally realizing that “Oh yes, I have my own head in this story.” Ultimately, as I expressed my own doubts about shooting the man (whispering to myself in Tagalog that he wasn’t a traitor), I believe I was given blanks (as per the tradition that not all the guns at formal executions are loaded, to absolve firing squad members from either the guilt or pride of murder). As for being Jose Rizal himself, the experience is one of passive acceptance of death — almost an enlightening experience. A soldier notes that my pulse is calm, and I ask not to be shot in the head, but at the heart, a wish they seem to oblige. As I slump closer to the ground in my death throes, I whisper the words of Jesus Christ in Latin, “Consummatum Est (It is finished).”

Mr. Ocampo told BusinessWorld about the historical accuracy of the affair. As Rizal, one sees stacks of rocks and lampposts, and he says he based these on photographs of Rizal’s morning execution. If one looks around, one spots a dog. “I insisted on having the dog, which was the mascot of the firing squad,” he said. According to his lectures, that dog is proof that you’re looking at an authentic photo of the execution, as many fakes have been reproduced purporting to show the scene. “You’ll only know [it’s] the real one if you have the dog.”

Rizal’s last thoughts and words are based on letters he penned to friends and family right before his execution, as well as eyewitness accounts. “The others, we sort of made that up,” he said about the internal monologues of the spectator and the executioner.

While the VR film that BusinessWorld saw was in Tagalog, Mariles Gustilo, Head of Ayala Museum and Senior Director for Arts and Culture for the Ayala Foundation, said that there would also be an English version to make it more accessible to non-Tagalog speakers. When asked if the experience of living and dying in someone’s shoes is a better way of understanding history, she said, “For this generation, World War II isn’t even in their consciousness. So I think the idea for us as a museum is to make the information and learnings accessible in a fashion that the person who we’re talking to can relate [to] — and enjoy.”

The end of the short film poses a reminder that Rizal died for the country, and asks the viewer if he thinks it had all been a waste. Mr. Ocampo said, “If we could bring Rizal in a time machine, [to] our own time, then let him experience traffic on EDSA, or read the newspapers and see how messy we are — would he have allowed himself to be shot? Was it worth actually dying 100 years ago?

“When you find your answer, then you become an agent of change — or reform. You see that things don’t have to be the way they are.”