The society of respected film critics that hands out the annual Gawad Urian in cinematic excellence

Armida Siguion-Reyna: Film Actor, Producer, Industry Leader

By Nicanor G. Tiongson

At the age of 8, Armida Liwanag Ponce-Enrile appeared as an extra with the child star Tita Duran in a movie called Yaman ng Mahirap (1938), which was directed by Armida’s aunt, Carmen Concha. That experience enchanted the young Armida and from then on she was enthralled by the art of cinema. On her way to school (FEU Grade School), she would stop at the Star Theatre to gawk at the movie stills of Rudy Concepcion, Rosario Moreno and Corazon Noble. During the Japanese Occupation, she learned the songs of her idol Fely Vallejo, who was the ghost singer for Corazon Noble and Norma Blancaflor. From the film musicals of the late 30s she developed her passion for the Filipino song.

But her fascination with cinema and desire to be in film did not sit well with her father, the noted lawyer Alfonso Ponce-Enrile. Right after the war, she took screen tests with Palaris Films and was offered the chance to be the young lead of Fernando Poe Sr.’s company. Promptly, her father sent her away to the Academy of St. Joseph in Long Island, New York, where she graduated high school in 1948. The following year, she secretly auditioned for a role in the new Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I by singing the Deanna Durbin song, “The Italian Street Song” (with a high C in the end, Armida adds). Her chances of being taken were good but the nuns of Saint Joseph found out about the audition and reported it to her father. As expected, her father ordered her to come home immediately.

At the airport, Armida was met by her father and a young lawyer in her father’s law office, Atty. Leonardo T. Siguion-Reyna, who fell in love with her and pursued her until she agreed to be married to him in 1951. By then, Armida’s artistic career had to temporarily take the back seat to her duties as wife and, later, as mother to their three children – Leonardo, Jr., Monique and Carlos. But it wasn’t long before she was able to once again revive her career on stage, and, soon after, in film – this time with the full and loving support of a husband -- her companion, confidante and “fountain of all graces” -- who by this time had become one of the most successful lawyers in the country.

Armida the Actor

Because she could not be in film, Armida started her acting career on the stage, specifically, in her mother Purita’s company, the Philippine Theatre for the Performing Arts (PTPA), which produced operas like La Traviata, Lucia di Lammermoor, I Pagliacci and Rigoletto. Armida sang the leading female roles in these operas, in the company of such opera stalwarts as Aurelio Estanislao, Don David, her sister Irma P. Potenciano, Gammy Viray, Robert Natividad and sometime Fides Cuyugan-Asencio. Later, Armida starred in PTPA’s the Merry Widow and in a theatre piece that became a turning point of sorts in her acting career. At the new Meralco Theatre, she played the role of Birdie in Mga Ibong Mandaragit, a Filipino adaptation by Oscar Miranda of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes, which was directed by Rolando Tinio. Here she delivered a monologue which got an audience reaction that gave her the goose bumps. She narrates: “I remember getting a little disappointed after my monologue, because the crowd was silent. Then as I turned around to go to another position, there was sudden applause, applause that went into a crescendo...it was then that I heard a little voice telling me that I was going to be a better actress than opera singer.”

And from then on it was acting that she pursued with a passion. Desiring to hone her craft, Armida, after she joined the film industry in the 70s, attended four Eric Morris workshops in Manila and in the U.S., one of them supervised by Ramona Rhodes. Through these workshops and the acting laboratories conducted by Gina Alajar, Michael de Mesa and Maryo de los Reyes, Armida learned to “explore a given material from a real place of personal tension, fear, inhibitions and confronting what’s been blocked by memory.” In practice, however, when she had to work on an actual role, she would create the character not by herself but under the orchestration of the director. Says Armida: “When something in my character connects to a real-life experience in the past, I also discuss this with my director, how to enlarge or control it. Odd, but true. No matter the many times I’ve fought with directors as producer, as an actress I am virtual putty in my director’s hand.”

The acting technique seems to have worked for her quite well, judging from the acclaim her performances have reaped from award-giving bodies. In Lino Brocka’s Tahan na Empoy, Tahan, Armida plays her most celebrated role – as the aunt under whose care Alicia Alonso leaves her son Niño Muhlach because she has to work full-time. Armida interprets the character as a cantankerous, acid-tongued and dowdy woman who is vicious enough to physically abuse her helpless nephew. However, Armida prevents the character from slipping into a black stereotype of the Etang Discher/Bella Flores variety by carefully revealing the character’s soft spot, the site of her vulnerability : the aunt is nasty because she is alone and lonely, as she has practically been abandoned by her husband who prefers to work as a seaman abroad in order to stay away from her. Her character’s cruelty results from her bitterness and her bitterness springs from being rejected by a husband who simply does not love her.

Armida’s other outstanding performances were rendered in Sa Pagitan ng Dalawang Langit (1977), Bilanggong Birhen (1977), Kakabakaba Ka Ba? (1980), Pag-ibig na Walang Dangal (1979), Salome (1980), Basag ang Pula (1982), Paradise Inn (1984), Ang Totoong Buhay ni Pacita M. (1991), and Inagaw Mo ang Lahat sa Akin (1996). Notable too were her earlier performances as Gregoria de Jesus in Lakambini at Supremo and as Gabriela Silang in Dung-aw, both in 1975. In all these films, Armida succeeded in creating credible and sympathetic characters, whether they be oppressive donas or dirt poor peasants, revolutionary firebrands or comic Chinese matriarchs, repressed unhappy wives or malicious village gossips. As an actor, she has left Philippine cinema with a gallery of unique and memorable characters that will forever live in the repertory of great Filipino acting.

Armida the Producer

In 1970, Armida established her first production company, Aawitan Kita Productions, to produce, not films yet, but television shows, most importantly, Aawitan Kita, the program hosted by Armida which showcases her obsession – Filipino songs, whether these be traditional kundimans, balitaws or danzas or contemporary pop ballads and love songs, sung by luminaries and young talents in the world of opera, musicals and pop songs. With carefully chosen settings, sumptuous costumes, well-researched scripts, sleek and well-planned cinematography and imaginative direction (mostly by her son Carlos), Aawitan Kita has won numerous awards from PATAS, CMMA, CCP and Star, aired in different TV stations for no less than 35 years, making it the longest-running show in the history of Philippine television.

But Aawitan Kita also served as a stepping stone for Armida to get into the movies. Under its aegis, she produced and starred in the historical dramas Lakambini at Supremo (directed by Lupita Concio) and Dung-aw (directed by Lino Brocka). These two productions, Armida says, lured her into film production. So in 1977, she and some friends established Perafilms, PERA being the acronym of its investors: Ponce-Enrile, Reyna and Angara. For this company, Armida produced three films, two of which were Laruang Apoy, about a loveless marriage, and Mga Bilanggong Birhen, about the repression of women. After Perafilms closed shop, Armida line produced about seven films from 1979 to 1983, five of which were financed by Bancom Audiovision (including Salome and Pag-ibig na Walang Dangal), one by Entertainment Philippines (Gwendolyn) and one by Roger Corman (Wheels of Fire). Then in 1988, Armida went into a co-production with Viva Films, Misis Mo, Misis Ko, Carlos Siguion-Reyna’s film debut. After this successful venture, the Siguion-Reyna family decided to establish the family-based Reynafilms, with Armida as producer, Bibeth Orteza as writer and Carlos Siguion-Reyna as resident director.

Reynafilms entered the industry with a bang because its initial production, Hihintayin Kita sa Langit, a Filipino adaptation of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights as adapted to film by Lawrence Olivier, won a combined total of 18 awards from the Urian, FAMAS and FAP. The next year, its second film, Ikaw Pa Lamang ang Minahal, a Filipino adaptation of William Wyler’s The Heiress which in turn was an adaptation of Henry James’ Washington Square, did even better, garnering a total of 27 awards from the Urian, FAMAS, FAP and YCC. Since then Reynafilms has produced nine more films, notable of which are Inagaw Mo ang Lahat sa Akin, a story of how incest destroys an entire family; Abot-Kamay ang Pangarap, the tragedy of a housemaid who bears her master’s child; Ligaya ang Itawag Mo sa Akin, the portrait of a prostitute who dreams of leaving the brothel and starting a family of her own but in the end returns defeated to the whorehouse; Kahapon, May Dalawang Bata, the coming-of-age tale of two children in a far-flung barrio where drought forces the superstitious peasants to revive a ritual involving maiden sacrifice; and Azucena, a gothic story of how a policeman physically abuses his common-law wife and his daughter and how the common-law wife avenges herself on him.

In its desire to help elevate the standards of Philippine movies and with it the level of appreciation of the Filipino audiences, Reynafilms has succeeded in making commercial films that can boast of both quality and box-office viability. Much of the secret lies in the choice of popular material but executed with technical perfection. Armida reveals: “I go by the material that moves me, that arouses me, that screams for me to get involved. I like themes that do not age, issues that continue to stand even years after the production. I watch our movies on television today and there’s something new that I see in each re-showing, nuances that are highlighted by present-day controversies.” As for technical polish, Armida achieved this by being involved in every stage and aspect of production. “I never saw myself as a ‘money-bags’ or financier-type of producer. I was an on-the-set producer every stage of the way. I knew exactly how many jeeps were hired, how many extras were used, how much was paid for every set, every location. I’m least involved in the writing stage, but even there I constantly remind the writer and director to make sure there’d be no huge scene that would end up on the editing floor.”

As a producer, Armida always insisted on establishing professional relations between producer, artists and technicians in a production. She did not believe in accommodating the whimsical behaviour of stars and required all her actors, designers and technicians to sign contracts which specified that they had to work exclusively on her film for 32 shooting days within 45 calendar days. This meant that no one could do other films (“lagare”) during the shooting of her film. And this, as well as budgetary restrictions and administrative regulations, applied to all, including her son and daughter-in-law. Thus, if Carlitos exceeded his film quota, Armida deducted from his take-home pay both the cost of the extra film and the cost of processing that film. When Bibeth made a mistake in the colors of the poster Armida asked her to supervise, Bibeth paid for her own mistakes. As a producer, Armida made the rules and enforced them, resulting in savings for the production and a more efficient way of filmmaking that was evidenced in the polish of the final cinematic output.

And her efforts paid off. Almost all the films she produced have become critical successes, most have been shown in international festivals, and some have reaped honors for Reynafilms and the country. Inagaw won Best Picture in the 1996 Nortel Palm Springs International Film Festival as well as Best Picture in the 1996 FAMAS awards. Ang Lalaki sa Buhay ni Selya won the Special Jury prize in the Teddy Awards of the 1998 Berlin International Film Festival, the Best Asian Film award at the 1999 Newport Beach International Film Festival, and the Special Jury prize in the 1998 Turin Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival. Kahapon, May Dalawang Bata took home the Best Foreign Film prize at the Newport Beach International Film Festival as well as the second runner-up prize in the “Air Canada” People’s Choice awards in the 1999 Toronto International Film Festival. Azucena was adjudged Best Picture at the 2001 San Diego Asian-American Film Festival. Likewise, Reynafilms’ productions for TV, in addition to Aawitan Kita, also fared quite well. Taghoy ng Dagat won a prize in the Star awards for TV in 1993. Sandakot na Lupa got the Best Actor award in the 1996 Asian Television awards, while Senyorita brought home the award for Best Telemovie, Best Director and Best Screenplay in the 1995 Bahaghari TV Awards. Most of all, Aangkinin Ko ang Bukas won the award for Best Movie for Television in the 1996 Singapore International Film Festival. Last but not least, Reynafilms productions never lost money; some, like Hihintayin and Ikaw Pa Lamang, became money makers, while one turned out to be a blockbuster -- Ligaya.

But like all producers of the 1990s however, Reynafilms encountered two major problems : taxation and censorship. A burden to all producers from way back when, taxation in the 1990s, according to Armida, just grew and grew because industry leaders kept accommodating small increases in taxation over the years. By the 1990s, whatever income a film earned at the box office was divided thus: one third to the producer, one third to the theatre owners and one third to the government. Armida protests this division of income: “Theatre owners don’t advertise the movies. All ads are shouldered by the producer. Theatre owners can’t even put toilet paper in the restrooms or make sure that all toilets have running water and they get a third of the box-office take?” Aside from taxes, censorship was what some of her films came up against. Armida fumes: “It was so hard to deal with the idiots-and-a-half at the MTRCB, their whimsical interpretation of PD 1986, their power-tripping, their refusal to treat adults as adults, or even just basically see the difference between bad or good filmmaking.” With bull’s eye certainty, she intones : “Censorship, in my opinion, is what killed the mainstream Filipino industry.”

Armida the Industry Leader

Aside from trying to professionalize local filmmaking through her work as an actor and as a producer, Armida also contributed to the local film industry by leading its members in the fight against unenlightened censorship; in acting as the gatekeeper and gadfly to those who would promote mediocrity in the industry or stain its name; and in promoting the Filipino film abroad.

A staunch advocate of the constitutional provision of freedom of expression, Armida was involved in the struggle to abolish film censorship in its many stages. In the pre-Martial Law period, she couldn’t openly march with the activists against censorship because her brother Juan Ponce-Enrile was Marcos’ defense secretary but secretly she subsidized the streamers and placards of the demonstrators. In the Cory era, Armida took to the streets with Lino Brocka, Behn Cervantes the Concerned Artists of the Philippines to denounce MTRCB for banning or censoring local TV programs and films. During the Ramos administration and as a member of the Appeals Committee of MTRCB, she fought for the approval of films that had been slapped with an X-rating by the Board. As a producer she tangled directly with the censors when they demanded the deletion of scenes from Abot-Kamay ang Pangarap which she felt were essential to the movie. And when she finally became MTRCB chair, she brought in directors, writers, actors and producers from the film industry to compose half of the Board and liberalized the regulations of PD 1986, infuriating and pushing the conservatives to ask for her head on a chopping board. And even when a spate of very bold movies came one after another in 1998 that triggered not a few demos against her, she stood her ground, citing the constitutional provision that “no law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, expression and the press.” Fortunately for her, President Estrada, who appointed her to that position, backed her up all the way, even when the lawmakers diminished the MTRCB budget as “punishment” for its “intransigency”.

Quijano de Manila correctly pointed out, in a 1999 article, that between the law and art, Armida would favour the latter. Said Quijano: “Certainly one can’t see the lady just going on and on looking at cinema as just something to “review” and “classify” or “disapprove”. Armida may have “law” in her blood but she has “art” in her heart – and the Muses in her can whack the Moses in her any ol’ time, wanna bet?” And indeed, it was Armida the artist that took precedence over Armida the MTRCB chair because she knew exactly the spirit and intent of the constitutional provision: prior restraint would discourage original thinking and ultimately kill the truth. As MTRCB chair, she said in 1999: “From the time a film writer types the first line of a script, all his innate potentials of expression are already strait-jacketed. Opinions expressed in the script must be safe and uncontroversial. The director is likewise not allowed to shake the foundation of society to explore new frontiers of human possibilities. Creative growth has been crippled through many years of censorship: consequently, producers are afraid to take risks on serious films.”

But although she loosened the stranglehold of the MTRCB on producers and filmmakers, she could not completely eliminate the provisions of PD 1986. Deletion was still allowed, except that now the cutting was being done by the producers themselves who wanted a more general rating for their films. Armida took consolation in the fact that she saw her term as a transition to the time when the industry could regulate itself and censorship would have given way to pure and simple classification. To her credit though, and Armida is proud to say this, “the MTRCB has not gone back to the Jess Sison-Etta Mendez-Manuel Morato standard of restriction. They’re still strict out there, but no longer as Jurassic.”

But even as Armida defended filmmakers’ rights and welfare, she lashed out at some members of the industry for fostering mediocrity or breaking the rules of fair play. As a member of the jury of the 1994 Metro Manila Film Festival, Armida and her co-jurors braved the criticism of her colleagues in the industry when they decided, for the first time in the history of the MMFF, not to give awards in the major categories of Best Picture (three slots), Best Director and Best Screenplay. Because these awards came with substantial monetary incentives, the decision raised a howl of protest among producers of competing films. But Armida and her co-jurors dug in, arguing that none of the films came up to the standards set by the MMFF board itself, which required films to show “artistic and technical excellence” (50%) and “innovativeness” (40%). In the same spirit, she used her column in the People’s Journal to comment on important developments in the industry, often acting as a gadfly when she thought these developments were injurious to the general welfare of the industry. On one occasion, she wrote a scathing critique on the proposal of some technical guilds of the FAP to turn the Academy into a union, arguing that 1) the original intent of the law creating the FAP was professionalization not unionization of the industry, 2) even if the guilds were unionized, no one could force producers to employ only technicians from the unionized guilds, and 3) instead of becoming protectionist, the guilds should open themselves up to the latest development in film technology so that they would become competitive.

But her strongest words were reserved for those who would drag the industry into the mire of dishonour. When the Manila Film Festival scandal exploded in June 1994, Armida was so angry at Lolit Solis’ shameless ploy of switching envelopes so that the actors she managed would win the acting awards. Hurting for the industry, Armida unleashed a statement laced with barbs and daggers. She thundered that the scandal exposed some members of the industry as “a group of selfish, insensitive and greedy individuals who have absolutely no concern even for the public who patronize their movies,” people who are “worse than rats...with the ethical standards of a tapeworm.”

Finally, Armida pushed for the creation of the International Film Festival Committee (IFFCOM) in the Film Development Board of the Philippines to encourage and support the participation of outstanding Filipino films in international film festivals and competitions. Starting in 1996, the IFFCOM , which she chaired during the Ramos and Estrada administrations, subsidized the making of new prints, the subtitling in English, and the transportation, per diem and accommodation of selected representatives of a participating film. Through the exposure of Filipino cinematic works in these festivals, Armida also hoped to help achieve what she had time and again suggested to local producers: expand the market of Filipino films beyond the confines of the country because that is the only way the Filipino film industry could survive all the odds against it, not least of which is competition from multinational Hollywood.

Epilogue

Today, Armida has retired from the movies and just produces and hosts the Aawitan Kita sa Makati presentation at the Makati City Hall for Senior Citizens once a month. Sadly she looks at what remains of the once vibrant industry. “The industry is dying, if not dead”, she says, and “the industry that’s out there now is not the economic force it used to be.” And unless government steps in to help, the prospects of that industry are, she feels, “minimal.” One way the government could help is by allowing the Cinema Evaluation Board of the FDCP “to exempt from censorship films rated on the basis of excellence” and “part of the prize of the rated films must also now include free TV advertisement, otherwise all cinema from hereon would only be those produced by Star Cinema and GMA Films, and I am not kidding.”

Armida is happy that indie filmmakers are gaining critical attention here and abroad, although she does not “understand the ‘airs’ some indie filmmakers put out” and is shocked at “how they can look down on the mainstream people and posture as god’s gift to cinema!” Armida continues: “I never saw Lino Brocka or Ishmael Bernal look down on other filmmakers the way these indie ones do. But I must say I like Dante Mendoza.” But minus the airs of some indie directors, Armida would probably approve of many of the indie films being made today because they depict exactly what Armida believes films should portray in our day. Says Armida : “Today’s movies have to be truthful. They should show the corruption in government, the massacres that are happening and other social issues. All this must come out in film for the younger generations to see.”

Today one cannot write the history of the Filipino film industry in the last four decades without mentioning Armida Siguion-Reyna. From the 1970s to the early 2000s and like her namesake Armide, the enchantress who battled with an army of Christian soldiers during the First Crusade and the heroine of Jean-Baptiste Lully’s 17th century opera masterpiece, Armida with bravura took on a host of major problems in the film industry to make good films, and for that the Filipino cinema will forever be grateful.