The Many Roles of Armida
- Nicanor G. Tiongson () - April 25, 2010 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - 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. But her dreams of appearing on the silver screen did not sit well with her lawyer father Alfonso, who wanted her to prioritize her studies.

After finishing high school in New York, Armida played the lead roles in her mother Purita’s opera productions until she was married to ace lawyer Leonardo Siguion-Reyna, with whom she had three children.

With the love and support of her husband (her friend and “fountain of all graces”), Armida finally broke into the movies in 1975 and since then carved a name for herself in Philippine cinema till she retired in the early 2000s.

On Thursday, Armida will receive the Natatanging Gawad Urian, the life-time achievement award and the highest honor that the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino confers on the most outstanding practitioners of the art and science of cinema in the Philippines. She is being cited for her sterling achievements as an actor, a producer and an industry leader.

After appearing in several operas, Armida 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 sometime in the late 60s.

Here, after she delivered her monologue, the audience broke out into applause that gave her goose bumps. Armida says, “It was then I heard a little voice telling me that I was going to be a better actress than opera singer.” From then on it was acting that she pursued with a passion.

Desiring to hone her craft, Armida attended four Eric Morris workshops in Manila and in the U.S. and through their acting laboratories 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 was working on a role on the set, she would create the character not by herself but in consultation with the director, in whose hands, she says, “I am virtual putty.”

In addition, when playing kontrabida roles which tend to be one-dimensional in Filipino melodramas, Armida would prevent the character from slipping into a black stereotype by carefully revealing the character’s soft spot, the site of her vulnerability.

In her award-winning performance in Lino Brocka’s Tahan na Empoy, Tahan, Armida played the aunt under whose care Alicia Alonso leaves her son Niño Muhlach because she has to work full-time. Armida interpreted the character as a cantankerous, acid-tongued, dowdy woman who is vicious enough to physically abuse a helpless child.

But the role did not deteriorate into a cardboard character, because Armida carefully revealed the reason for her character’s viciousness: bitter loneliness, because she has been rejected by a husband who preferred to work as a seaman abroad to be away from her.

The acting techniques seem to have worked for her quite well, judging from the acclaim many of her performances have garnered from the FAP, FAMAS, YCC, Star and Urian awards.  

As an actor, she has left Philippine cinema with a gallery of unique and memorable characters that will forever live in the treasury of great Filipino acting.

In 1970, Armida established her first production company, Aawitan Kita productions, to produce, not films but television shows, specifically, the much-awarded Aawitan Kita, the program of Filipino songs she hosts, which is the longest-running show on Philippine television.

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, she produced three films, two of which were Laruang Apoy, about a loveless marriage, and Bilanggong Birhen, about the repression of women.

After Perafilms closed shop, Armida line-produced about seven films for other companies (five of them for Bancom Audiovision) from 1979 to 1983 and in 1988 went into a co-production with Viva Films, Misis Mo, Misis Ko, her son Carlos Siguion-Reyna’s auspicious film debut.

After this, the Siguion-Reyna family decided to establish 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, 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, did even better, garnering 27 awards from the Urian, FAMAS, FAP and YCC.

Since then Reynafilms has produced nine more films, most of them notable for combining both quality and box-office viability. This may be attributed in large part to Armida’s ability to choose popular material and execute it 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.”

As for technical polish, Armida achieved this by being involved in every stage and aspect of production and by 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. 

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 in festivals and competitions around the world.

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, Reynafilms struggled with taxation and censorship. A burden to all producers from way back when, taxation just grew and grew because industry leaders kept accommodating small increases in tax payments 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 theater owners and one third to the government, an arrangement Armida thinks is unfair.

Aside from taxes, censorship was what some of her films came up against. With bull’s eye certainty, she intones : “Censorship, in my opinion, is what killed the mainstream Filipino industry.”

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 Cory era, Armida took to the streets with Lino Brocka, Behn Cervantes and the Concerned Artists of the Philippines to denounce MTRCB for banning or censoring local TV programs and films.

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.

Fortunately for her, President Estrada, who appointed her to that position, backed her all the way, even when the lawmakers diminished the MTRCB budget as “punishment” for its “intransigency.”

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.

Through her column in the People’s Journal she critiqued 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.

And 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, 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.

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. “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”.

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!”  

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 true to the spirit of 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.

The author is founding member and former chair of the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino. He is a professor at the UP Film Institute and the author of several books on Philippine history and culture. He is currently in Kyoto as a Japan Foundation fellow.

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