Charo Santos and her triumphant return to film in Lav Diaz’s ‘Ang Babaeng Humayo’

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Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — “If you cannot tell your story in two hours, then you're a bad filmmaker,” someone once told Lav Diaz, matter-of-factly. This someone happened to be a critic, an educator, a friend; someone who, since this kind of remark no longer fazed Diaz, would act in one of his longer films as Lino Brocka, an influential figure in his career. He, along with other teachers, would use Diaz as an example of how not to make a film, would make him the butt of their jokes. Incidentally, he also pronounced the end of Philippine cinema with the death of Brocka, revered for quite some time as the greatest Filipino director, in a car crash in 1991. As fate would have it, this critic had also passed on recently, much to the grief of those who were fond of him, including Diaz himself; and over the years, as Diaz has slowly been refining a language, Brocka has remained Brocka, inimitable, a product of his time, still venerated but with temperate understanding, the decline of puristic worship for him and his works a reflection not of dismissal or ignorance but of development, indicating that Philippine cinema, regardless of the road it takes or the cloak it wears, has always been, and will always be, bigger than Lino Brocka.

More than a decade later, Diaz is still telling stories longer than two hours. This time, one drizzly afternoon in June, he and his team are on their way to a remote, upscale subdivision called Town and Country Heights in Antipolo, Rizal, to shoot six additional sequences whose completion will wrap his current project, titled “Ang Babeng Humayo.” On the van with him are his frequent collaborators: Hazel Orencio, Kristine Kintana, Daniel Palisa, Kim Perez, Barbie Capacio, Kyla Domingo, Che Villanueva, and Popo Diaz, along with his four set men — almost the same crew he had for “Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis,” except now Diaz also serves as the cinematographer, replacing Larry Manda. It is a small but strongly committed crew, each of whom used to doing many things at once, exhibiting a particular temperament common among Diaz's collaborators: low-key but efficient, simple but capable, serious at work but with enough sense of humor to agree, after some crazy wheedling from the director, to act on-screen when needed.

Ang Babaeng Humayo” stars Charo Santos, the former president and CEO of ABS-CBN, one of the key people behind Star Cinema, and the host of “Maalaala Mo Kaya,” the country's longest-running drama anthology series on television. Before consigning herself to a long-term, high-profile corporate job, she worked her way from being a production assistant (“John en Marsha”) and line producer (“Kisapmata” for Bancom Films; “My Juan En Only,” “Waway,” and “Hindi Nahahati ang Langit” for Vanguard Films) to an executive producer (“Himala,” “Oro, Plata, Mata,” “Misteryo sa Tuwa,” and “Soltero” for Experimental Cinema of the Philippines; and “Nagsimula sa Puso” and “Kapag Langit ang Humatol” for Vision Films). She exchanged the busy, glamorous life of being in front of the camera for the busier, less glamorous life behind it, along the way making the careers of many big stars in her network. But among hardcore film buffs, Santos will always be the women she gave life to in “Itim,” “Kakabakaba Ka Ba?,” and “Kisapmata,” all directed by Mike de Leon in the 70s and 80s.

Her first public announcement of “Ang Babaeng Humayo” was at a press conference for the 25th anniversary of “Maalaala Mo Kaya” on May 29, with media reporters visibly surprised and excited upon her straightforward confirmation. “Yes, it's true,” she said. “I just finished a movie with Lav Diaz.” Since then all the fuss has been about “Ang Babaeng Humayo” being her comeback film, focusing specially on this pitch, on the novelty of it, for despite being in the public eye for her weekly series, and gaining a sort of eminence as ABS-CBN’s soft-spoken honcho, Ma’am Charo, as people around her fondly call her, is sorely missed at the movies.

Before heading for the location, the production team stops at a nearby restaurant for dinner. Santos is already there, as she’d rather wait for people than have them wait for her, and stands up as she sees Diaz and everyone enter the room. Beaming, she exchanges kisses and pleasantries, showing how much she has missed their company. She asks for Barbie, the makeup artist, who presently walks in and sits beside her. Barbie starts cracking jokes that make her laugh, setting a bright, cheery mood for conversation. Santos mentions the first branch of Max’s Restaurant in Scout Tuazon, Quezon City, where her family used to go on weekends, back when she was a student at St. Paul’s College Manila pursuing a degree in communication arts. She shares what happened at the press conference, admitting that she feels ill at ease every time she is asked to speak about herself. She is clearly comfortable with the group, talking to them intimately and recalling every now and then some stories from their shoot in Mindoro several weeks ago.

“Ang Babaeng Humayo” premiered at the 73rd Venice Film Festival to critical acclaim. The Hollywood Reporter called Charo Santos-Concio's performance "majestic." Photo courtesy of HAZEL ORENCIO

“Remember when we first met?” asks Diaz. Santos just looks at him, waiting. “I don’t think you’d remember this,” he says. “It was sometime in the late 80s or early 90s. I was with my friend, Manny Buising, and we were both struggling screenwriters. ABS-CBN called for submissions of concepts for TV and teleplays. We submitted something and a few days later we were asked to present. You were at the panel. It didn’t look like we were going to get it. At the end of the pitch you simply told us, ‘I’ll take a look at it.’ Of course, we knew then what that meant.” She doesn’t remember it, but on her face is a look of appreciation for being reminded of this small incident.

What can be felt at the table, as food plates are being passed around and light rain continues to fall outside, is this relaxed and rather casual atmosphere that characterizes the usual gathering for a Lav Diaz film: this calm, orderly arrangement that is quite unthinkable in scores of productions these days, where meeting the deadline has always been the primary force. This freedom of taking the time and letting it be part of the creative process, with every decision seeming to be born of careful deliberation, of waiting for the right moment to come, without feeling that being thorough and unhurried is a luxury but just the proper thing to do. Diaz, detached from any clique or movement and associated only with the few people he regularly works with, has remained at the forefront of Philippine independent cinema: independent because he is not attached to the studios, independent because he is in reasonable control of his work, and independent in the way his filmmaking — his mode of production — understands that fulfilling one’s artistic vision comes with being accountable for his people, paying them right and treating them well, upholding an independent cinema founded on responsible filmmaking and the fair politics of collaboration.

More than the return of Charo Santos to the big screen is the statement that comes with her working with Lav Diaz, with her willingness to be a student again and realize firsthand some principles she may not have thought likely to be applicable in production in her more than 30 years in the industry — she, after all, is Star Cinema's biggest star. Their meeting feels like an alignment of two worlds separated by nature and principle. Diaz, reacting to claims of selling out, would simply shrug and say, “There is only one cinema,” overlooking the divide often discussed. To him there is nothing extraordinary about the project. It's just two people working together. No two ways about it.

And these two people, on the first night of March, at the celebratory dinner organized for the victory of “Hele” at the Berlin Film Festival, happened to be seated beside each other at the long table. It was the first time they had actually talked. “Hele” received the Silver Bear Alfred Bauer Prize, a recognition given to a film that “opens new perspectives on cinematic art,” an award earlier bestowed to the works of Zhang Yimou, Tsai Ming-liang, Stanley Kwan, and Park Chan-wook. Star Cinema, its local distributor, thought the banquet would be a nice way to honor the film’s production team, inviting everyone from the cast and crew, with some of the chief executives of ABS-CBN in attendance. It was a pretty busy night, complete with huge amounts of picture-taking and pouring of wine left and right.

Santos said she’d like to give Diaz a book and asked someone to get it from her office. The book was “Rage!: Juan Luna/Antonio Luna/Trinidad Pardo de Tavera” by the journalist Alfredo Roces, about Juan Luna's killing of his wife, María de la Paz Pardo de Tavera, and mother-in-law, Doña Juliana Gorricho, at their residence in Paris in the autumn of 1892. The bloodshed was evoked by the carnage and terror in “The House on Zapote Street,” the sensational 1968 news feature by Nick Joaquin (writing as Quijano de Manila), which became the basis of the 1981 film “Kisapmata,” starring Santos.

The meeting of Lav Diaz and Charo Santos feels like an alignment of two worlds separated by nature and principle. Diaz, reacting to claims of selling out, would simply shrug and say, “There is only one cinema,” overlooking the divide often discussed. To him there is nothing extraordinary about the project. It's just two people working together. No two ways about it.

Diaz accepted the book, said he would read it. He thought maybe she’d like to produce a film based on it, or she'd like him to direct it. But his mind was somewhere else. He was itching to write something. Then came the moment which, depending on one's interpretation, could be either a simple point of contact or a point of no return.

“Kailan ka aarte ulit?” he asked, casually, looking at her in the eye.

Kung may offer, gusto ko naman talaga,” she replied. “Napako lang ako sa pagiging presidente ko rito. Kung may magandang role, tatanggapin ko.”

Sige, bigyan kita,” he said, his mind still somewhere else, only right now it seemed farther and farther away, at his desk at home in Marikina, in front of his computer, writing a story for her.

Hearing her response, he was struck by her sincerity, the tone of her voice conveying this desire to make it happen, especially now she had the time after her retirement last year. She still has work to do, as the company’s chief content officer and executive adviser to the chairman, but being out of the chief executive role means a whole lot of responsibility lifted from her shoulders, freeing her from the hardest demands, most stressful meetings, and toughest decisions.

The offer to return to the movies, however, was not particularly new. Several times over the years she had been approached by Ronald Arguelles, the head of ABS-CBN’s cable channel Cinema One, to consider it, courting her and waiting for her to say yes. She was offered the lead role in Adolfo Alix Jr.’s “Mater Dolorosa,” a 2012 drama about a mother fraught between running a criminal empire inherited from her husband and keeping her family intact, a role that eventually went to Gina Alajar.

In “Ang Babaeng Humayo,” Charo Santos-Concio plays Horacia, a schoolteacher who spent three decades in jail for a crime she didn’t commit. Photo courtesy of HAZEL ORENCIO

Santos, always careful not to rub anyone the wrong way, would respond to Arguelles with a smile and say that her priority was her responsibility with ABS-CBN. But Arguelles, a Davaoeño known for his diligence and uncanny ability to get what he wants, knew it was only a matter of time. He, too, had been courting Diaz, a longtime friend, to make a film for Cinema One Originals, the channel’s annual film festival established in 2005. Diaz, ever the man of principle, would also respond with a smile and say that he wouldn’t be part of the festival unless the filmmaker was given ownership rights. Whenever they met he would ask, chuckling, already sure of the forthcoming answer, “O, Ron, may ownership na ba?” and Arguelles would just laugh, knowing this particular clause in the contract would be impossible to change anytime soon.

Unknown to Arguelles, what had been brewing at that moment at the long table, as speeches were made in honor of “Hele,” and with Diaz sharing the experiences in Berlin and Santos keenly listening to him, was the realization of his pipe dream.

For years, Diaz had been toying with the idea of making a trilogy on life sentence. The first film would have been “Reclusion Perpetua,” his anticipated team-up with Nora Aunor, which, as early as 2007, had received a fair amount of attention in light of its lead star, who was then doing her best to return to the industry. It was a dream project: another meeting of two worlds, an exciting endeavor teeming with promise. The script was already finished, about a woman who goes to the U.S. to find her missing husband, but the project was shelved mainly for financial reasons, specifically because the many offers of monetary help did not materialize. This led to misunderstandings between the two sides concerned.

The second film, “Kapag Wala na ang Alon,” is scheduled for principal photography in January 2017. Diaz is hoping to get Joel Torre and Ronnie Lazaro as leads. Bianca Balbuena and Bradley Liew, its producers, pitched the story to the Hong Kong Asia Film Financing Forum and received positive feedback, allowing them to find prospective financiers, agents, and distributors. Diaz describes “Alon” as a film noir set in Virac, Catanduanes, in a port area swarming with smugglers, wrapped in his usual themes of revenge and existentialism.

Ang Babaeng Humayo” is the third in the trilogy. But in a strange turn of fate it became the first to be filmed.

On the way home from the victory dinner, Diaz was reminded of a short story he had read years ago: “God Sees the Truth, But Waits” by Leo Tolstoy, first published in 1872. It concerns a merchant wrongly accused of killing a fellow merchant. This man, Aksionov, is sentenced and sent to Siberia, accepts his fate, and leads a life dedicated to God. After 26 years, a new prisoner comes in, whose stories of home build up to a hunch that slowly becomes a truth: He is the culprit of the crime for which Aksionov is punished.

More than a hundred and forty years later, this tale of torment and forgiveness, written with unmistakable religious instruction, came to Diaz as inspiration. After emailing Santos and Arguelles a copy of the short story, he quickly drew up a storyline using only the framed-up character as the key premise but retaining Aksionov's deeply emotional and spiritual burden, the abstractness of his suffering, and the inscrutable command of fate over his life. In two days Diaz was able to finish the scenario, ready for reading and scrutiny.

"Ang Babaeng Humayo" is Lav Diaz's second film this year after "Hele sa Hiwagang Hapis," which won the Alfred Bauer Prize at the Berlin Film Festival. Photo courtesy of HAZEL ORENCIO

Just hours later, a reply came. Santos said yes. On March 11, two days after Diaz and Arguelles had a preliminary meeting, these three people — the director, the producer, and the actor — were at TWG in Edsa Shangri-La Plaza arranging a timetable that would be the production schedule for “Ang Babaeng Humayo.” The entire April was set for preproduction, the first week of May for the location hunt, and soon thereafter the principal photography. The speed of how decisions were made — with everything falling into place easily — became consistent throughout the project.

“Direk, saan mo gusto mag-shoot?” Santos asked, as concrete plans started to take shape.

“I’m thinking of Catanduanes or Masbate,” he replied, “or probably Mindoro.”

“Mindoro na lang!” she exclaimed. “Taga-roon ako. Sa Calapan ako lumaki.”

Ah talaga?” he said, her eagerness rubbing on him. “Tamang tama, ‘yon pa naman ang balak kong puntahan agad.”

No doubt the material and its troubled lead character, named Horacia, had made her say yes, but the location for the shoot definitely sealed the deal. Her memories of Calapan had always been imbued with joy, a reminder of a simple childhood replete with traditional values taught by her parents. The Calapan of the 50s and 60s was very different from the Calapan of today, whose paved roads and lively commerce are characteristic of a city always looking ahead, especially now with a population of more than a hundred thousand. This small coastal community was Santos’s home for a good few years, a conservative town in touch with the world’s many tempting opportunities, in which at some point in her teenage years the seeds of her dreams had been planted.

She would come out in plays when she was younger. With her soft features and even softer demeanor, she was known for being a shy and reserved girl who, despite her willingness to appear in front of a crowd, had never felt comfortable being constantly stared at. Owing to her sheltered upbringing, she grew uptight — stiff to a fault — and too hard on herself, a kind of attitude that thwarted several opportunities to learn more about the world through experience, the strength of character needed for an actor to be effective. All of this changed in 1976, when Santos was crowned Miss Baron Travel Girl, enabling her to go on trips abroad and be featured on magazine covers. This, in turn, led to her being noticed by Lino Brocka and, after a successful audition, securing the lead role in Mike de Leon’s “Itim,” for which she won the best actress award at the 1977 Asian Film Festival. She certainly was not in Calapan anymore.

However, Santos acknowledges that Calapan was where her love for cinema actually started. “Every weekend my father would bring us to the theater and we would watch the double features,” she recalls. “All the Sampaguita Pictures, Lea Productions, Western movies, Hollywood epics … and then we’d also see some classic films on television. I remember watching ‘An Affair to Remember,’ all the Audrey Hepburn movies, Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, James Bond ...” Her voice trails off, as though each memory was racing to be recognized. But the Calapan of her childhood, the Calapan that inspired this timid barrio lass to pursue her big dreams in Manila, the Calapan that in many ways had made her one of the most powerful personalities in the country, was no longer the Calapan she returned to more than 40 years later, in the second week of May, for the shoot of “Ang Babaeng Humayo.”

Many things had changed, mostly the look and feel of it, for what used to be a small village was now a busy city. But to her delight, her return was a pleasant surprise, especially upon seeing the familiar faces of childhood friends and neighbors, as well as places meaningful to her, her family’s old home, the school, the spots where she idled countless afternoons away decades ago.

"Ang Babaeng Humayo" is the third in a planned trilogy on life sentence. It is the first to be filmed. Photo courtesy of HAZEL ORENCIO

But Santos was there to reacquaint with a former profession, a career she had long been away from. At a press interview, when asked what her last movie was, she was unsure what to answer. She was told it was “Esperanza: The Movie,” released by Star Cinema in 1999, where she played the title character’s mother. Her supporting role in “Gumapang Ka sa Lusak,” directed by Brocka in 1990, was probably the most remarkable among the last string of features she made before going full-time with ABS-CBN.

“I missed it pala,” she admits, when asked about the experience of acting again, this time as Horacia. “I missed everything that went with it. So I prepared for the role and researched on the character. I talked to people. I read up on her motivation, on the triggers of her behavior ... I took it upon myself to explore the depths of Horacia’s soul. It wasn’t hard, to be honest. I don’t look at it as easy or hard ... It's work, it's my passion, so I did my homework. It helps that Lav doesn’t like to overdramatize.” With a chuckle she adds, “I’ve been blessed with directors who [tell] me not to act.”

Diaz, whose light directing style meant giving room for the actors to interpret their characters freely, was impressed with her commitment. Santos went to a penitentiary to talk to inmates and observe them and their activities. She attended workshops to brush up on acting. She agreed to spend almost 20 days in Calapan, taking only her production assistant of 25 years, Ate Inday, with her. She went to the shoot as an actor and not as a producer who questioned the process of a filmmaker known for his unconventional ways.

Kriz Gazmen, a creative director at Star Cinema who maintains a close and constant work relationship with Santos, said: “Every encounter and conversation with Ma’am Charo is like meeting the Dalai Lama. Whenever we talk I'd always learn something about myself and life in general.” The Ma'am Charo in ABS-CBN’s spacious conference rooms — whether she is listening to concept proposals or offering suggestions to writers on how to give their characters more “soul” — is someone whose piercing gentleness can leave her colleagues quiet. Conversations with her, as Gazmen recollected, are similar to personal reflections, a dialogue with a part of oneself rarely confronted, an experience almost spiritual in effect.

“I missed it pala,” Santos admits, when asked about the experience of acting again. “I missed everything that went with it. So I prepared for the role and researched on the character. I talked to people. I read up on her motivation, on the triggers of her behavior ... I took it upon myself to explore the depths of Horacia’s soul."

Arguelles, the executive producer, had concerns at the beginning as to whether Santos could fit into Diaz’s production team, how this refined lady could adapt to a crew of 19 people who were already comfortable with one another’s practices as well as Diaz's signature long takes and frequent improvisations. These worries, as it turned out, enabled nothing but excitement, for everyone in the crew, from Diaz himself down to the production assistants, was thrilled about the project, for something almost unthinkable to finally see the light of day. The doubts happened to be unfounded, as Santos, in all of the 10 shooting days in Calapan, was the “easiest to work with, the most professional and most down-to-earth,” according to Hazel Orencio, the film’s assistant director.

The impression Santos gave Diaz and the team was one of simplicity and humility: someone who would strike up a conversation because it was her nature to listen, someone who asked questions whenever she was uncertain and would ask further to learn more, her eyes always curious and her manner never overriding, her naiveté making her more amiable and easier to approach. This became useful for Orencio when she had to bring Santos her “flying papers.” Every night, Diaz would look at his prepared script and revise it, and in the morning Orencio would go around and distribute the papers to the cast, for additional dialogue and instructions, and the art department, for possible changes in the production setup. Santos never raised objections to these things; in fact, she seemed all the more challenged by them. She was always ready for long lines of dialogue, and when the papers came, the text scrawled by either Diaz or Orencio, she would find a quiet spot and memorize them. Many of Diaz’s actors — including the stars of “Hele,” Piolo Pascual and John Lloyd Cruz — were skilled at committing to memory lengthy monologues and conversations, and Santos felt the obvious pressure on her. Her character, Horacia, goes searching for the person responsible for her frame-up and subsequent 30-year imprisonment, determined to know the truth; and here she was in her hometown, more than 30 years after “Kisapmata,” returning to form, with probably the toughest role in her acting career.

Lav Diaz was inspired by the Leo Tolstoy story "God Sees the Truth But Waits" for "Ang Babaeng Humayo". Diaz wrote the treatment in two days and sent it to Charo Santos-Concio and the film's producer, Ronald Arguelles. An hour after he sent the email, Concio said yes. Photo by PATRICK DIOKNO

One time an assistant asked about a waiting area where she could rehearse and have her makeup done, but the team didn’t have one, just a small space where their stuff was gathered. It was mostly her staff who were concerned. “Ni minsan hindi siya nag-diva,” Diaz says. “O nagsabing dalhan siya ng kahit ano. Walang complaints. Walang special requests. Hindi siya tinatawag para kumainsiya mismo mag-isa ang pumipila para kumuha. Kapag break, minsan, nakaupo lang siya sa tabi ng kalsada. Para siyang PA pa rin." This could be attributed to a peculiar fact: Santos was not a product of the big studios, hence she never acquired the habits common among popular stars at the time, some of whom were known for their outrageous demands and temper. She managed to stay away from this stereotype.

At the shoot, many things did surprise her. She was amazed with how a crew of fewer than 20 members could make a feature of this scale so efficiently. The glitches didn’t feel at all like glitches but mere forces of nature. Inadvertently she was reminded of Star Cinema’s multiple setups with numerous lights and equipment, whereas in this shoot, more than half of the time, Diaz used only available lighting. “Puwede palang walang ilaw, Direk? Paano ‘yan, madilim? Paano makikita?” she’d ask. He said the camera he was using, a Sony a7s II, was a very intelligent device suited for low-light environments, adding that with the advanced technology these days, shooting a film didn’t necessarily require many people. She expressed her surprise repeatedly.

If anything, it was the weather that drained the entire team in Calapan. At some point Diaz had to pack up early because everyone was enfeebled by the heat. It was so humid he had a bout of pneumonia, and in the first three days he struggled with diarrhea. He even feared some of them would suffer from heatstroke. This was completely opposite to the shoot of “Hele,” most of which was carried out amid heavy winds and rains. Diaz had countless stories on how the weather contributed to how his films turned out, how crucial decisions were made on account of sun or storm. But in all of them he and his team would always find ways to survive.

At a quarter to eight, the team arrives at a dimly lit intersection in Town and Country Heights where in one corner a few tricycles are parked next to a beat-up waiting shed. In an hour of setup, this will be used for the first scene to be shot tonight.

As soon as the bags are left in the assembly area, everyone starts moving. Orencio walks in with some kids who will be part of the scene and orients them. Popo Diaz, the production designer, clarifies with Lav a particular aspect of the continuity as two of his set men prepare the drip bars and garden hoses to be used for the rain effect. Having found the right angle and frame, Lav Diaz takes his time adjusting the settings of his camera, perfecting the black and white. To his left another pair of set men are unpacking the cases containing the lights. Santos is in her van memorizing her lines, waiting to be called.

Part of the film was shot in Charo Santos-Concio's hometown, Calapan, Oriental Mindoro, where her love for cinema started. “Every weekend my father would bring us to the theater and we would watch the double features,” she recalls. Photo courtesy of HAZEL ORENCIO

Everyone is preparing for a long take: Horacia will narrate a story to her friends and some children, passing the time while raining. In her 30 years in prison, she has turned into a storyteller, resorting to words and their ability to bring comfort, weaving tales to avoid contact with madness. This particular story is an excerpt from Diaz’s yet unfinished novel, “Ang Bantayog ng Itim.”

Then in a spell of dramatic coincidence, it actually rains, gently at first, heavier than a drizzle but lighter than a downpour, and everyone carries on unperturbed. The shed is almost ready for filming, Ma’am Charo can be called any minute, and Orencio is giving final instructions. While waiting for some vehicles to exit the road, Diaz says: “May nag-email nitong nakaraan ... tinatanong anong pelikula ko ang puwede nilang ipalabas for their festival. ‘Batang West Side’ sana kaso may conflict with another festival. So sabi ko, ‘Hele’ na lang.” Laughing, he adds, “Tapos hindi na sumagot! Ayaw ‘ata ng eight hours.”

The rain continues, but no longer gently; in minutes it drops cruelly, making it impossible to talk and listen to anyone. People run for cover. The equipment bags gathered on the wayside are carried off quickly. Santos, who is about to alight from the van, is told to go back. She smiles, holding the dog-eared script, and closes the door. Diaz, in his black raincoat, is given an umbrella to protect his camera from the water. He stands in the middle of the narrow road, in semidarkness with his trusted friend and partner in crime, deciding to stay there in the hope that the rain will stop soon.

Thirty minutes later it is still pouring.