ARGUABLY, the Philippine film industry is more accepting of female filmmakers than Hollywood could ever be. For instance, when Laurice Guillen directed her first film in the early eighties, Kasal, the legendary superstar Barbra Streisand was struggling to get financing for a movie she wanted to direct.
Hollywood, they say, remains patriarchal. Only a few female directors have been nominated for Oscars. Unlike Streisand, Guillen was not a star, but it was easier for her to get a directing job. She was a respected actress though, having proven her mettle in several prestigious projects of Lino Brocka. Her directing debut had her coaching a top-flight cast that included Christopher de Leon, Hilda Koronel, Jay Ilagan and Chanda Romero.
Kasal had a thin and sudsy storyline (Koronel is having the wedding jitters) but Guillen’s direction was slick and polished, which was a rarity in those years. Guillen soon established herself as a top director with films like Salome. Her career was still thriving when she and the actor husband Johnny Delgado went on an extended spiritual retreat, but they eventually made a splashy comeback with the inspiring family movie Tanging Yaman. The film echoed the couple’s devotion to Catholicism as the storyline focused on religious faith.
Today, Guillen is busy promoting her latest project, Santa Santita. She and producer Tony Gloria were recently at UVA in Greenbelt to pitch the movie to the press. Guillen said the movie explores the theme of the biblical Magdalene —the prostitute who becomes a saint.
“This modern-day Magdalene story is about a very young and sinful girl who is suddenly comforted by the evil in her life when she receives the stigmata in her dreams,” she explained
Santa Santita is set in Quiapo, Manila, where thousands visit the Church each day. Guillen notes that Quiapo Church is “a magnet for sinners seeking redemption.”
“This dichotomy is seen in the church’s surroundings, where vendors hawk religious items as well as herbs that induce abortion. Inside the Church, Catholic priests hear sacramental confession, while outside, fortunetellers read the future to hopeful clients,” she pointed out.
Guillen told The Times that she first discovered the script of Santa Santita five years ago, when she was a judge of a scriptwriting contest organized by the Mowelfund. Written by Jerry Gracio, the screenplay won and since then Guillen had been presenting it to producers who might be interested to turn it into a film, with herself as director. The project couldn’t take off, however, as Guillen and the producers couldn’t agree on the actress who would portray the young heroine. She said if the casting were wrong, the movie wouldn’t work. “The producers wanted a big star, but none of them would have been right for the part,” she recalled.
Finally, she turned to Tony Gloria, whose Unitel Productions had produced her previous hit movie American Adobo. Gloria agreed that casting the right actress was imperative. He noted that the heroine had to be played by an unknown. “An established star can never be convincing in the role,” he said.
They finally found their Santa Santita in the 18-year-old Angelica Panganiban, a former TV child star whose credits include Ang TV and Berks. She grew up to be Piolo Pascual’s leading lady in the series Mangarap Ka.
Guillen is happy with the fact that she has managed to grow and evolve as a filmmaker. She said early in her directing career, she was happy to accept commercial projects like Kasal. She now feels fortunate to make films with topics that are close to her heart.
“Like Tanging Yaman, Santa Santita is about faith. But contrary to what the public might expect of me, I’m not limiting myself to projects about religious faith. I’m still open to doing projects about other important issues,” she clarified.
The director said she brought to the project to Tony Gloria because he was amenable to her artistic vision for the film “and not because of his faith.” Gloria himself admits that he’s “a struggling Catholic.”
Guillen laughed along with him. She declared, “We’re all struggling Catholics!”