A 17-year old Alma Moreno, with Armida Siguion-Reyna, in the 1977 film Mga Bilanggong Birhen.
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The height of Alma fandom, Brocka versus Armida, and the making of 'Mga Bilanggong Birhen'

The stories from the behind the scenes of 'Mga Bilanggong Birhen' — recently brought to its original sheen by the ABS-CBN Film Restoration group —reveal a set as intense as the ambitious period drama on class struggle. In this excerpt from her memoir published before she passed away early this year, Armida Siguion-Reyna, the producer and star of the 1977 production, revealed why Lino Brocka shaved his head for the movie, fought with his producer, and prayed for his friend's loss in the 1977-78 Best Actress race. 
Armida Siguion-Reyna | Sep 28 2019

In a chapter from her 2015 memoir, the producer, singer, actress and activist Armida Siguion-Reyna wrote about her friendship with Lino Brocka. A big chunk of that chapter in the book tackled the stories on the set of Mga Bilanggong Birhen, produced by Armida's PERA Films. In the film, she also plays the mother who once fell in love with a man outside her own class. 

 

It was during the shooting of Tahan na Empoy, Tahan that Lino [Brocka] mentioned a period story that Mario O’Hara was working on. I invited Mario for lunch in my house to talk about it. It was a beautiful love story set at the turn of the century. I fell in love not only with the story but with the actors he wanted to cast which included Alma Moreno, Leroy Salvador, Monang Carvajal and newcomers Pangguy Francisco, Johnny Delgado, and Doming Landicho. Lino Brocka was going to have an important role as a cult leader. This was, of course, Bilanggong Birhen, the entry of PERA Films (Ponce Enrile, Reyna and Angara) for the Metro Manila Film Festival in December 1977. It was a controversial piece of work because of certain love scenes, as well as the nude scene of one of the lead actresses, and six naked men pushing a bagon.

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A very young Alma Moreno as Celina, one of the two virgin sisters awaiting her turn for an arranged marriage.

Mario O’Hara had asked me, “Ma-ilulusot mo ba ito sa BRMPT (Board of Review for Motion Pictures and Television)?” and I told him that for the festival, there will be no problem, as it was agreed upon that selected entries will not go through censorship. I knew this because I was the president of the IMPDAP that year and Fernando Poe Jr. was president of the PMPPA. Both producers’ associations fought for it and Teodoro Valencia, head of the Executive Committee of the MMFF, had agreed. However, after the 10-day festival, the continued exhibition of the movie would be under the jurisdiction of the BRMPT. But I felt confident because the story was not about prurient interest. Lino loved the story and encouraged us to get Romeo Vitug as cinematographer and Laida Lim Perez as production designer.

The main location was the house of Johnny de Leon in Bacolor, Pampanga.

The film was shot largely in this house in Bacolor, Pampanga.   

We had no budget for hotel accommodations and residents of Bacolor were hesitant to rent out their homes to a large group of people for the shoot. Fortunately my husband’s former high school classmate at Ateneo de Manila, Charlie Valdes, had a new house with two bedrooms, a big sala, and a huge silong. That became home to us for three weeks. I occupied one room with the transiting female actors, while the other one was assigned to Alma Moreno and her group.

The main set took a month to prepare but Laida did a magnificent job. Windows had to be adjusted, screens removed, and the whole house was given a fresh coat of paint. The decor was equally amazing. Johnny de Leon did not charge PERA Films a single centavo for the use of the house. My husband borrowed a vintage car from Don Andres Soriano that was brought to Bacolor on a flatbed truck, accompanied by two maintenance men for a three-day shoot. I did not pay for anything.

Armida plays Felipa, mother of Celina, who had once committed the mistake of falling for someone not from her own class.  

Lino shaved his head bald for his scenes in the movie. He did not charge a professional fee. Leroy Salvador charged me one peso and requested to be paid with a check which he framed.

It was hell shooting in Pampanga and I vowed never to shoot there again. PampangueƱos were crazy about movie stars. Pagdating ng artista halos hindi na makababa sa kotse dahil sa crowd. Our talent coordinator had to push a group of onlookers who fell into a canal to protect Alma Moreno from being crushed as she alighted from her van. Poor Alma, she could not even open the windows of her room because people nested on trees outside to get a good look at their star. And when she kept the windows closed, they would throw stones on the roof in anger. I had never seen such an unruly mob of movie fans.

My husband borrowed a vintage car from Don Andres Soriano that was brought to Bacolor on a flatbed truck, accompanied by two maintenance men for a three-day shoot. I did not pay for anything.

The shooting went well until the third week when I felt that Mario O’Hara seemed aloof toward me. I noticed that he had toned down the intensity of the love scenes and also did other more “commercial” aspects with the movie. I reminded him that though risky, as all period films are, I agreed to do the project and that I was prepared to fight for it during censorship. Despite this assurance, we still could not communicate well with each other. To avoid unnecessary friction, I moved to a small hotel near Lubao, Pampanga.

Rez Cortez. 

Things got worse after that. He would change schedules without consulting with me. So, what the hell, I fired him. But before I did that, I asked Romy Suzara if he could take over the remaining five shooting days. He agreed. Our production deadline was delayed by 20 days but because we had a well-planned schedule, we still finished way ahead of all the other entries to the MMFF.

I felt that Mario O’Hara seemed aloof toward me. I reminded him that though risky I agreed to do the project and was prepared to fight for it. Despite this assurance, we still could not communicate well with each other. To avoid unnecessary friction, I moved to a small hotel near Lubao, Pampanga.

Oh, how Lino Brocka hated me for it! He was so angry. Mario O’Hara was his friend and as I said, pag tao nya ang kinalaban mo, kalaban mo si Lino Brocka. I remember, during the post-production of the movie at LVN where Lino was also doing work on his MMFF entry Inay, he would give me dagger looks at parang talagang gusto niya akong sakmalin pag kami ay nagkakasalubong sa swing door papunta sa office ng LVN. He even demanded that his scenes be removed from the movie. Acceding to his request, I eliminated his scenes except the one in which Alma Moreno was abducted. 

Leroy Salvador, Alma Moreno, Monang Carvajal and Armida Siguion-Reyna.

Talagang hindi puedeng tanggalin yung isang shot kasama si Lino. Galit na galit siya. Eh balitang-balita pa naman noon na strong contender ako for best actress in the MMFF awards night. Nanggigigil siya talaga at ipinagdadasal na huwag akong manalo. Hindi ako nanalo pero tatlo lamang kaming nominated for best actress – Liza Lorena for Ishmael Bernal’s Walang Katapusang Tag-araw, Vilma Santos for Celso Ad Castillo’s Burlesk Queen and myself for Bilanggong Birhen. Vilma Santos won. No hard feelings on my part. Vilma was very good in the movie.

After that came the FAMAS and Urian awards nights. Ganoon din; ipinagdasal din ni Lino na huwag sana akong manalo. Pero hindi siya nagwagi. After two years, his anger simmered down and eventually we became friends again. Hindi kami nag-away ni Lino na kaming dalawa ang dahilan ng pinag-awayan. It was always a third party that caused our rifts. We shared the same principles and fought for the same causes in the movie industry—to rid the industry of the patronage system whcih we both felt was a deterrent to professionalism. He was a great advocate of freedom of expression, and so was I.

During the making of the film, Alma was at the height of her powers. "Our talent coordinator had to push a group of onlookers who fell into a canal to protect Alma Moreno from being crushed as she alighted from her van."

The movie industry owes Lino a debt of gratitude for inserting “freedom of expression” in the 1987 Constitution, without which the fight against censorship would be many times more difficult than it is now.

I shall always be proud to have been part of the many anti-censorship rallies that Lino led. He was a charismatic leader who inspired his followers. He never abandoned the principles he stood for. He was also very human and at times, hilariously stupefying.

 

Published with permission from Monique Villonco, from the book Armida. Images courtesy of ABS-CBN Film Restoration.