We were very much surprised to see Mike de Leon sitting at the presidential table at Mother China during the recent press conference of Sister Stella L. Alam naming pinakaiwas-iwasan niya ang ganitong mga klase ng "pakikipagtuos" sa movie press, always preferring to stay on the backstage when it comes to the publicity and promotions of his movies. Kaya naman sa simula pa lamang ng pagsasalit niya sa mikropono ay idineklara na niya agad:"I was told by Lily Monteverde that it's going to be a small press conference. Had I known that it would be this big, I wouldn't have come. But I guess this is her idea of small." But once he started talking, Mike became very open to all queries thrown his way. He never rejected any of them. As a matter of fact, one could very well see that he tried to answer all of them as best he could. Although he has been directing movies for the past eight years, Mike is not that well known to local moviegoers. Probably because he has a small output (only a total of six movies made in eight years). Probably because he generally tries to avoid the press. But despite the fact that he has made very few movies, he and his works have won a number of awards. Itim was the winner of best picture in Asian Film Fest. Kung Mangarap ka't Magising won the award for most technically well-made movie in the 1977 Metro Manila Filmfest. Kakabakaba Ka Ba? won the Urian best director award in the 1980. Kisapmata made sweep of several awards in the 1981 Metro Manila Film fest and also won Urian acting trophies for Vic Silayan, Charito Solis and Jay Ilagan. Batch '81 won the Urian best screenplay trophy and the Film Academy best picture prize last year, and a lot of people are predicting that Stella L. will harvest more awards next year.
The general public does not really know that Mike comes from the famous de Leon clan of show business, his father being Atty. Manuel de Leon (erstwhile president of the Film Academy) and his grandmother being the late Donya Sisang, famous star maker of LVN Pictures. Mike indeed grew up in a milieu that is purely showbiz. He is used to being surrounded by movie stars. Kaya naman hindi katakataka na sa kanyang paglaki ay hangarin niyang mapabilang din sa daigdig ng pelikulang kanyang kinamulatan. His first formal brush with movie making was in 1975 when he co-produced Lino Brocka's Maynila: Sa Mga Kuko ng Liwanag. He was also the one who handled the film's cinematography, and he won a Famas award for his marvelous first job. The following year, he produced and directed his first full length fils, Itim. Mike's early movies, Itim and Kung Mangarap, were hailed as gems of technical excellence. One can really see the effort to make the cinematography, the sound recording, the production design, the editing and the musical scoring highly polished. But Mike was chided for the scarcity of relevant content in his films. Itim was merely an excursion to the realms of the occult while Kung Mangarap is basically a small drama about a confused youth and his brief affair with a lonely wife. Some even concluded that Mike cannot be expected to deal with subject that are socially conscious for he was born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth. With Kakabakaba Ka Ba?, Mike surprised his critics with a musical comedy that is a thinly disguised attack against the encroachment of foreign businessmen in our country. The Chinese and the Japanese were portrayed as wily capitalists earer to pillage their unsuspecting victims.
For us, the movie was also a triumph for Armida Siguion Reyna and Johnny Delgado, who portrayed their neocolonialists roles with much fervor and enthusiasm. The movie also attacked organized religion and its involvement in deluding the people. Batch '81 further enhanced Mike's growing reputation as a conscienticized movie maker. It dealt with oppression and tyranny using the basically cruel initiation practices of fraternities as a allegory. In Sister Stella L., de Leon's politicalization is in full bloom. One surmises that the awakening of Stella Legaspi, the movie's central character, fundamentally parallels Mike's own realization of the wrongs in our society. And this is what Mike himself says: "It is a conscientization film, which is the start of politicalization. It's for those who still feel uninvolved." Wasn't he afraid that he, the producer, the film, would be branded as anti-government? "The film is critical of the government, yes, But I don't agree with some people who say that it's subversive. Because, what is subversive? It's the advocation of the overthrow of one's government. The film does not advocate that. What it advocate is organization. If you want to fight, you can't do it by yourself. You have to do it as a body, then you present your demands. They're asking me if it's critical, yes, it's critical of this government." Mike also emphasizes that the film is not propaganda. "This is not a propaganda of the united democratic front or the opposition. It is just a film about people who go through a particular process and came out changed in the end." Mike then narrates how the movie started as an idea in his head more than two years ago. He has met some members of the clergy whose views have grown from submission to the will of God to total awareness and involvement about socio-political issues.
The idea really is good material for a now movie. The movie was first offered to Viva Films with Vilma Santos playing the title role. Somehow, the project never pushed through and it was offered to other interested producers. When Vilma learned about it, she was immediately enthusiastic in playing the role and with the prospect of being directed by Mike de Leon. For a while, both Mike and Vilma felt the project would never get beyond the planning stage. Until Lily Monteverde of Regal called for Mike and said she is willing to finance it. Someone asked Mike if the L. in the tile really stands for the word Laban? "The title Stella L. was given to the project two years ago. The purpose is really to distinguish Stella Legaspi from Stella Bautista. A lot of people are really asking if it means Laban. But I always tell them na nagkataon lang. When Lily picked up the project, I think more than the story, it's the title that she really liked." The name of the establishment against which the workers in the story staged a strike is Republic Oil Factory. "Someone is curious if it is a symbol for our very own Philippine Republic. "Yes and no," Mike answered. "The word Republic is really the production designer's choice, Cesar Hernando. When we were hunting for a location, it so happened that Lily has this oil factory in Bankal, Makati. We made use of it in the movie. As with regard to the double meaning of the word republic, I guess that's true. It stands for our country. Some of my staff even wanted to name it New Republic Oil Factory, but I rejected it. Masyado nang garapal." Mike also narrated that because of the various changes that happened in the course of the movie's being offered to other producers, members of the original cast he had in mind were also changed.
"Chanda Romero was originally assigned to play the role of Sister Stella B.," Mike said. "But she was busy with some other projects when shooting started so she was replaced with Laurice Guillen. Joseph Sytangco was originally cast in the role of the reporter. When we brought over the project to Regal, Lily wanted Joel Torre instead. We tried revising the script to suit Joel. Pero talagang masyado siyang bata. So we suggested Jay Ilagan instead and Lily gave her approval." The rest of the cast like Tony Santos Sr, as the labor leader, Anita Linda as his courageous wife, Liza Lorena as the magazine editor and Gina Alajar as the unwed mother who later kills herself were all personal choices of Mike himself. It was common knowledge that he has an initial misunderstanding over shooting schedules with Vilma Santos when shooting of Stella L. started finally at Regal. Would he have continued with the project without Vilma in it? "No," Mike answered unequivocally. "The whole rationale behind the film was Vilma. Kung wala siya, hindi ito matutuloy." The film that will be released to local audiences ends immediately after Stella L. talks directly to the audience about her transformation from being a mere bystander to that of a more actively involved individual. The version that was meant for international film fest audiences shows another final scene. After that solo scene of Stella talking straight to the camera, a special footage on the now famous and historic Lakad ng Bayan (Lakbayan) is exhibited. It shows impassioned Filipinos marching in a the streets wearing yellow Ninoy T-shirts and carrying anti-establishment placards. We have seen this ending ourselves and we personally feel that it is indeed a more fitting, more apt, more accurate finale for the story of Stella L.
"The Lakbayan ending is not originally in the script," Mike reveals. "But since the Lakbayan was then going on at that time and since I believe in it, I decided to film it. I think that with that in the ending, mas malinaw 'yung naging transformation ni Vilma. But when I shot it, Lily and I had an agreement that it is not going to be for local release. I was actually pushing for its inclusion intact in the local version but Lily reminded me of our government. But the print abroad has that ending. Is it true that the picture had rough sailing with the censors and this is the reason why the approval or permit was not released at once? "I went to the censors office together with a group of some fifteen nuns, priests, and pastors to inquire about the permit," Mike narrated. "Mrs. Maria Kalaw Katigbak said that the problems was procedural. There was a vote of four against two for approval without cuts and she admitted that. The permit was released in time for the premiere. But if some people intended to harass the film, we were determined to bring the matter in court, even to the supreme court." Mike was asked if the story was actually patterned after a real-life nun whose story ends with her being detained for eleven months in prison? "She is one of those interviewed by writer Pete Lacaba," Mike replied. "But this is not her story alone dahil malayung-malayo na ito doon. Naka-part four or part five na 'yon dahil namundok na 'on. Stella L, is mainly the beginning. Conscientization stage lang it." The formal open forum of the press conference ended with a touching pledge of allegiance to the movie by those who are involved. The staff of DZRH who were present promised: "We will be with you to the end."
The press people also said they would support the film, specially after a rumor that is broadcast advertisements have been stopped. But the most poignant testimonials came from the members of the cast themselves. Vilma Santos declared: "I will fight for the picture!" Pahayag naman ni Laurice Guillen: "I'll support whatever actions will be taken by the producer and the director." And from Gina Alajar: "Sama-sama naming ginawa 'yan, sama-sama din naming pagtutulungan." Mula kay Anita Linda: "Isang salita lang: laban!" And Tony Santos announces: "Kung saan sila naroroon, doon na rin ako." Pagkatapos nito'y nagtayuan na ang lahat. Namigay ng posters ng Stella L, at halos lahat nang nakatanggap ay nagpapirma kina Vilma Santos at Mike de Leon. Hindi namin ugaling magpapirma ng autograph sa movie celebrities pero this is one landmark film na we felt ay dapat lang na magkaroon ng more lasting memento with us kaya't iniladlad namin ang aming poster at lumapit na rin sa presidential table. Gulat na gulat pa si Vilma nang sabihin namin: "Puwede pong magpapirma?" Pinalo niya kami sa braso at agad siyang sumulat ng isang mahaba-habang dedication -na ang gamit ay isang pentel peng kulay pula. Sumunod naming nilapitan ay si Lily Monteverde na producer ng pelikula at pagkatapos ay si Mike na mismo na siyang direktor nito. By this time, kakaunti na lamang ang naiwan sa Mother China. Together with Ethel Ramos, binalikan namin si Vi na nakaupo pa rin sa presidential table. Nang umupo na kami'y sumunod na rin sina Mother Lily, ang father ni Vi, Ricky Lo, Tony Santos, and Liza Lorena, who came late dahil nagbenta pa raw siya ng mga kalamansi na siya niyang business ngayon. Mike has gone out too by that time.
When everybody started ordering some coffee, natiyak naming magtatagal ang daldalang ito. Questions were started to be thrown towards Vi and Liza. Masarap ang kuwentuhan. Maya-maya'y lumapit si Viring, ang special alalay ni Vi. "Tinatawag ka na ni Mike," sabi nito kay Vi. "Kanina ka pa raw niya hinihintay sa ibaba." "Sabihin mo," ani Vi, "umakyat na lang uli siya rito and join us." Umalis si Viring at maya-maya'y bumalik uli. "Ayaw magpunta rito," aniya. Sabi naman ni Vilma: "Sabihin mo, sandali na lang." Maya-maya, bumalik na naman si Viring: "Ang tagal-tagal mo raw," anito. Tumayo na si Vi. "Sandali lang," aniya sa amin, "pupuntahan ko lang si Mike." Nangantiyaw si Ethel Ramos: "Uhum, para na kayong mag-boyfriend niyan, ha. Natawa si Vi. "Ito naman. Naging close lang talaga kami." Nang bumalik si Vilma sa mesa, kasama na nito si Mike. That was our first time to have a close encounter with the director. Although we have seen each other at previews of this and that movie several time, we never were really introduced to each other. We have asked him earlier kung bakit hindi naipalabas and Stella L. sa Cannes Film fest at ngayon ay mas nilinaw niya ito. "It wasn't shown simply because I withdrew it from the screening," he said. "To begin with, when I arrived in Paris, I learned that it was not subtitled at all. They had the print for almost a month but subtitling was not done. Then it was supposed to be shown in the directors fortnight section of the film fest. But the director general of the fortnight said he didn't like the film and he's not going to take it. A group of critics volunteered to sponsor its showing and I consented. Iniisip ko kasi baka makatulong. The film is facing a lot of problems in Manila and I was thinking that whatever favorable opinion it might got will help its release here.
But then I learned that while I was away, the film was shown to various audiences during several previews and we now have all the support we wanted, from the clergy, from the press, from the labor. And I felt that this is the more important thing. Without local support, no amount of international support will help the film. So I decided not to show it any more. What I did was I supervised the film's subtitling until it was finished. Now, there's a possibility that it might enter the Venice Film Festival which will be held in September." With all the acclaim that the movie is receiving from different quarters, how is he reacting personally? "Well, of course, I'm very happy. But more than anything else, I believe that people who saw the film liked it so much because of several factors. First, it's the first movie of its kind that tackled that sort of a subject matter. Napapanahon rin kasi ito, what with all the protests going on. So it's a congruence of these things that made viewers like it." Doesn't he believe in the inherent goodness of the film? " I do. Modesty aside, I think it can stand the test of time." Will he and Regal be making more films of this sort? "It all depends on how this film will be received commercially and otherwise. Up to now, there are still those who doubt that it's going to ever get shown in downtown theaters. Hinihintay muna namin ang resulta nito. But I have another movie intended for Vilma and this time she would be playing a journalist." We extended our hand to Mike and, for the first time, personally congratulated him for Sister Stella L. We honestly feel that the movie is a personal triumph for him, for Lily Monteverde and the rest of the people involved in making it. So much has been said about local movies being inane and trivial and worthless. Mike proved that local filmmakers can be socially aware and responsible, too. Those who have been avoiding local movies for years and years, we now strongly advise you to see Sister Stella L. I concerns our country, our people, and it most certainly concern you! - Mario E. Bautista, Movie Flash Magazine, July 19, 1984 (READ MORE)