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"A Moment in the Sun": An Extended Interview with Filmmaker/Author John Sayles

Amy Goodman discusses race, class, labor, and sexuality with the legendary filmmaker-turned-novelist.

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AMY GOODMAN: Explain how they’re linked.

JOHN SAYLES: Well, I think they’re just linked by race, which is that whenever you look into anything historical, you have to think of what’s the worldview of the people who are living then, who are the actors in the play. And the worldview then was an extremely racist one, and not just from the yellow journalists and, you know, the rednecks or whatever, but college professors and presidents were spouting, you know, eugenics and other kind of racial theories that basically gave them a kind of green light to go and do whatever they wanted in the world, as long as it wasn’t to white people.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, we have just been talking about Puerto Rico. President Obama has made the first presidential visit in half a century, Puerto Rico, which—the key moment when the U.S. occupied, 1898, which—talking about the Philippines, talking about Cuba. Now, most people aren’t familiar with this history. And you chose the dawn of the 20th century as your backdrop. So, talk about the connection between the Philippines and Cuba.

JOHN SAYLES: Yeah, I think that the interesting thing for me was that there was this switch in the mentality and the self-image of Americans. We had certainly done things that were imperialistic before. We had, you know, defeated and taken over the lands of Indian nations. We had taken a big chunk of northern Mexico. But we didn’t think of ourselves, or want to think of ourselves, as imperialists. In a few-month period, from the time that the United States defeated the Spanish in Cuba, we went from saying, "OK, we’re the lovers of liberty. We’re here to liberate these people from oppression, from imperialism," to, "Oh, let’s not leave the Philippines." And it was, I think, a combination of opportunism and ignorance.

There was a thing called the Teller Amendment that—when we were discussing in Congress whether to fight the Spanish and kick them out of Cuba. And they were doing horrendous things in Cuba. They were doing—you know, its concentration camps were literally called "concentration camps" there. People were being starved. People were being murdered in Cuba. When we were debating whether we were going to actually have this war with Spain, a congressman named Teller said, "Well, this isn’t because you want to take over Cuba as a territory or a state and exploit it." And the expansionists said, "Oh, no, no. This is just  pro bono. This is, you know, because we love liberty." And he said, "Well, put it in writing." So the Teller Amendment was written. But because of ignorance, people didn’t also kind of know that Spain was sitting in Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines. So, when we won so quickly the war in Cuba, the expansionists said, "Well, those places also are being controlled by the Spaniards. We could kick them out of there. And they’re not covered by the amendment." So, all of a sudden, there was this kind of second wave of that war.

And what’s interesting, you know, some of the characters in my book, in  A Moment in the Sun, end up being people who probably, for their various reasons, volunteered for the war, because it was not a time when we had a big standing army, so more than half of the people who fought in those wars were volunteers, to liberate the Cuban people, and instead found themselves in the Philippines killing Filipinos, to take over the Philippines as an American territory.

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