It was not until Matthew Rosen’s Filipino wife, Lori joined in with singing Hava Nagila at a wedding in the UK ten years ago, that the Manila-based director-cinematographer discovered the strong connection between Jews and the Philippines.
“She had no idea it was a Hebrew song,” explains Rosen, speaking from Manila, where he has lived for more than 30 years. “She was so surprised when I told her because she said it was just something that everyone sang in the street. There are so many dialects in the Philippines, they all assumed it was another one.”
But Rosen was left curious and decided to find out more. He spoke to members of Manila’s small Jewish community and, to his astonishment, learned that between 1938 and the early 1940s, former Philippine President, Manuel L. Quezon had rescued over 1,200 German and Austrian Jews and brought them to the pre-war Philippines, at a time when few countries were prepared to take in Jewish refugees.
The story is relatively unknown which is why, Rosen says, he wanted to tell it. The result is Quezon’s Game, Rosen’s feature directorial debut, which is inspired by true events and stars Filipino actors, Raymond Bagatsing as Quezon and Rachel Alejandro as his wife, Aurora with dialogue in English, Spanish and Tagalog. It depicts how this much-loved President fought against critics and antisemitism in order to undertake the operation, aided by US diplomats, Jewish American businessman, Alex Frieder (and his brothers) and Quezon’s friend and military adviser — and future US president — Dwight D. Eisenhower.
“What I found to be so amazing was that not only did people overseas not know the story, but most Filipinos didn’t either, including Lori. It was kind of lost in history and only the Jewish community here knew about it,” he says. “Quezon was a bigger hero with the Jews in the Philippines than he was with the Filipinos.”
In the film, the plan to save the Jews is hatched over drinks, games of poker and clouds of cigar smoke, against the backdrop of the Philippines’ impending independence from the US (it was a US protectorate until 1946). It also shows that, while Quezon was intent on saving Jewish lives, he himself was dying of tuberculosis.
Research for the film proved challenging. Although they managed to talk to many of the relatives of the people mentioned in Quezon’s Game, including from the Quezon family, Rosen was unable to find any direct descendants of the actual émigrés living in the Philippines. “Only some distant relatives are still left in the country,” he explains, “So we had to go far to get our interviews — for example, to the US. It was quite frustrating.”
Additionally, Rosen found that the rescue was not well-documented: there is no definitive account. “We came across four official documents of how it came about and all four say something different,” he says. They did, however, work very closely with the synagogue in Manila who, fortunately, had the original reports, which were written by the Frieder brothers and sent to the Jewish Refugee Committee. “We were lucky to have them. It was like having an up-to-date diary of what was happening, which was very helpful. But when we started to interview historians, we realised that the official accounts of what happened were not the same as these reports.”
There is also debate about which politician opposed Quezon’s plan to help the refugees. “It remains a bone of contention,” says Rosen. “History appears to favour one particular politician, Governor Abad Santos, who we originally wrote in the script. However, the Quezon’s family adviser insisted that local history was incorrect, and the two men were friends. Quezon’s true adversary was ex-President Aguinaldo who was openly antisemitic. Many historians will argue with that because Aguinaldo is someone who is a hero in the Philippines.”
In order to work out the flow of events, he put all of the evidence together — “from A to point B” —and created a timeline. But, he says, “I don’t know if we were 100 per cent accurate. I certainly wouldn’t say I’ve studied it so well and this is exactly what happened. I’ve always said, we’re making a motion picture and not a documentary and I had the liberty to cherry pick from these four accounts to create the film.”
Rosen’s experience as a cinematographer is evident — Quezon’s Game is visually stunning. Manila — then called the Paris of Asia — is portrayed as an idyllic, exotic place, drenched in bold, lush greens and reds which contrast with the cool, crisp, white suits and dresses of the period. Set mainly the Philippine capital in 1938, the film was shot in Las Casas de Acuzar, a settlement about three hours from Manila that is in the process of being reconstructed and restored to resemble the layout of old, pre-war Manila town. Luckily, its existence enabled Rosen to capture Manila as it was, he says.
Some reviewers have made comparisons between Quezon’s Game and Schindler’s List, but Rosen disagrees. "Schindlers List is about the horrors of the Holocaust. When you leave the auditorium, it makes you somewhat ashamed of humanity, whereas I want audiences to feel uplifted and happy. Our film is about the goodness of men and how, in the darkest of times, there are people who make sacrifices to do the right thing. You go in there and you enjoy it — it’s not just documentation and about the Holocaust, it’s got romance, it’s got politics.”
Rosen has been a director and cinematographer for about 40 years, making commercials and TV and music videos but his long-term move from London to Manila was unintentional. In 1986, he was sent to the Philippines on a six-month project to make a music show, similar to Top of the Pops. Half way through shooting, there was a revolution. “I got stuck here during that time, met my wife and fell in love with her and the country,” he says. “We were always thinking about going back to the UK but it’s such a lovely place, it’s very hard to go anywhere else.”
Quezon’s Game is Rosen’s way of saying “thank you” to the Philippines. As a JFS schoolboy, he experienced antisemitism and recalls being chased down Camden High Street every evening by the Holloway boys, “But here,” he emphasises, “I’m a stranger in a strange land and I’ve never experienced any kind of bigotry at all.
“I wanted to tell everyone there is a culture that doesn’t understand bigotry and this movie was one way of doing that.”
Quezon’s Game, is on general release from 31 January