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Why Carlitos Siguion-Reyna stopped directing films for 14 long years

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by April 29, 2017 General

MANILA — He is best remembered for his critically acclaimed and award-winning works on the big screen, with such films as “Ikaw Pa Lang ang Minahal” (starring Maricel Soriano and Richard Gomez), “Hihintayin Kita sa Langit” (with Richard Gomez and Dawn Zulueta), “Ligaya ang Itawag Mo sa Akin” (starring Rosanna Roces) and “Inagaw Mo ang Lahat sa Akin” (with Maricel Soriano and Snooky Serna).

Enviably, he has clutched honors from different award-giving bodies like the Gawad Urian, FAMAS and Film Academy of the Philippines.

However, director Carlitos Siguion-Reyna took a self-imposed, long sabbatical from film directing after the release of “Azucena” in 2000. He stopped churning out great and memorable Tagalog films, something that he has undoubtedly been known for.

“The aftermath of the 2001 ouster of President Joseph Estrada deeply divided the film community just as much as it did the rest of the country,” Siguion-Reyna explains. “I found myself a pariah in my own industry for having supported the unpopular position of completing the impeachment trial.

“In the shadow of a new government, the major industry figures who had moved for the ouster or had remained silent during the political noise stopped returning my calls. But more importantly, I questioned if my audience’s values and my own were still the same. The alienation affected me such that I could not resume making films for an audience I felt I had lost connection with, including people I grew up and went to school with. I came away from it with feelings of self-doubt.”

After some time, Siguion-Reyna channelled himself into personal advocacies and offered his services — pro-bono — to activist organizations such as the women’s group Gabriela and the nationalist Bayan.

He directed for the Citizen’s Congress for Truth and Accountability a video protesting electoral fraud and presidential abuse. For the Ascent group, he did a video demanding compensation for World War II comfort women. He did political commercials for deserving and underfunded mainstream or party-list candidates, rallies and street protests.

“I set up a personal roadmap to contribute to film development, by taking part in Congressional hearings to continue the advocacy for free expression,” he offers. “I also worked to prevent the expansion of censorship, participating in hearings that helped write what eventually would pass as the Film Development Council of the Philippines law, and sitting as jury member in film and cinematography competitions.”

TEACHING STINT

Although film directing took a backseat to his professional endeavors, Siguion-Reyna was hardly idle. He accepted pro-bono speaking engagements on film production and film’s role in society.

He taught in formal learning institutions such as the University of the Philippines, as well as in film workshops run under the auspices of the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) and the Directors’ Guild of the Philippines, which he co-founded and subsequently served as president for three terms. These activities greatly helped to get him back in touch.

“The teaching experience also inspired me so much, that when New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts announced their new campus of Tisch Asia that they would open in Singapore in 2007, I thought I couldn’t miss the opportunity,” Siguion-Reyna says.

“The campus was only a three-hour flight away and there would be a sense of symmetry in teaching at a new portal of the same film institution in which I had earned my own MFA degree in film even before I made my first feature-length film in 1987. I applied and was admitted into the Graduate Film faculty in 2008, and taught there until my contract expired in 2015.

“The diverse and supportive student and faculty environment, and the top-level quality of student and faculty work at NYU Tisch Asia sparked up my drive to make films again. So when the opportunity came during the academic summer break in 2012, I returned to filmmaking with ‘Hari ng Tondo’ and enjoyed every moment of the experience, as if I’d never left the practice.”

‘HARI NG TONDO’

“Hari ng Tondo (Where I Am King)” is a comedy film screened at the Contemporary World Cinema section in the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival. That same year, the movie was also shown in Manila. Siguion-Reyna’s wife, noted scriptwriter and TV director Bibeth Orteza, wrote the screenplay.

A scene from ‘Hari ng Tondo

The Internet Movie Database (IMDb) gave a brief synopsis about the film, which is about “a grandfather on the brink of bankruptcy who brings his children back to the community that made and shaped him, only to find out the place is no longer the same.”

“Hari ng Tondo” had a star-studded cast led by Robert Arevalo, Liza Lorena, Rez Cortez and Aiza Seguerra, with Eric Quizon, Audie Gemora, Ali Sotto, Ciara Sotto, Cris Villonco and Siguion-Reyna’s son, Rafa.

Father and son got to work anew in last year’s Tanghalang Pilipino production, “Pangarap sa Isang Gabi ng Gitnang Tag-araw,” Rolando Tinio’s translation of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

“After ‘Hari ng Tondo,’ it was fun directing Rafa again, for the stage at that time,” Siguion-Reyna recalls. “I saw his process up close, developing and finding opportunities to connect with his fellow players every moment of stage time, and adding details to his Flute/Thisbe. It was all a gratifying experience spending time with him at work and even in the daily EDSA traffic that took half as much time as every day’s rehearsals.”

TRYING THEATER

It was Tanghalang Pilipino’s artistic director, Fernando “Nanding” Josef, who approached Siguion-Reyna sometime in 2015 and offered him the opportunity to do “Pangarap sa Isang Gabi ng Gitnang Tag-araw.”

“I’d not done a straight play before, especially a Shakespeare or a Tinio. From the few works of Shakespeare that I had read, I thought I could connect more readily with ‘political’ stories such as Julius Caesar, Macbeth, Richard II or Coriolanus, each of which I thought was more tightly organized than ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream.’

“The play is a comedy structured around at least five plots of varying tones and subjects (romantic comedy/drama, magic, gender politics, Everyman comedy, etc.) that could easily blow apart unless unified by one’s chosen and consistently suggested themes.

Carlitos Siguion-Reyna joins the cast of ‘Pangarap sa Isang Gabi ng Gitnang Tag-araw’ during curtain call. Photo from the Facebook page of Tanghalang Pilipino

“In fact, I tried to convince Tata Nanding to go with any of the other plays above, but the company had already scheduled ‘Pangarap… ‘ It was a nerve-wracking challenge that I ultimately couldn’t resist. After all, when else could I get a chance to direct a Shakespeare/Tinio work? As it turned out, the experience was its own reward: I learned more from directing the material than from having read it countless times. Well, knock my head.

“I got to learn and appreciate even more from the masterful theatrical writing of Shakespeare and Tinio. For example, I was amazed at the tremendous comic energy released by the quick twists and turns within the climactic quarrel scene among the four lovers in the third act, which just jumps out of the page when staged.

“That must be obvious to veteran theater directors, but I’m glad to have been ignorant of it until this recent discovery so I could share my excitement at this point in my life. It’s also a great pleasure and matter of pride to hear Tinio’s Tagalog matching the life and energy of Shakespeare’s English, when you listen to the two side-by-side in every performance.”

Siguion-Reyna had nothing but praise for his actors, who all had “tremendous energy” regardless of age.

“I had a blast working with all of them. The show was physically demanding particularly on the younger actors, what with bodies hurled to the floor, yanked or flailed around, actors chasing each other up and down the multi-level set, and Aldo Vencilao’s Puck dancing and rapping Tinio’s translated verse. All delivered even more than what I had expected.

“They also were very responsive to direction, listened to each other and the dramatic situations around them, knew each other’s lines, worked hard and creatively during rehearsals and performances, and acted as a tight-knit ensemble very much in the moment and supportive of each other every step of the way.”

Even during the successful run of “Pangarap sa Isang Gabi ng Gitnang Tag-araw,” there were already serious inquiries for a rerun from several schools whose students, faculty and friends had seen the show. “So it looks like it will happen,” Siguion-Reyna excitedly says.

“There’s also a film in the works. Tata Nanding and I have also been talking about another Shakespeare theater project or a Filipino musical for the near future.

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