Monday, August 29, 2011

Sister Stella L (1984, Mike de Leon)

The original title of this award-winning film was Sangandaan (Crossroads). Producer Marichu Vera Perez found it to be too serious and suggested 'Sister Stella L' as title. That suggestion was a stroke of genius.

The current title evokes many images. I associate the title with a nun raising the Laban (Fight) sign. The word 'Laban' is what the letter L means to me. The film themes are bravery, power of the masses, and fighting for human rights. Those traits can also be found in the people involved in the film.

Enigmatic director Mike de Leon has always been known as a risk taker. He pushed for 'Itim' as title of his debut film. The film might have ended a flop at the Metro Manila Film Festival but it is still a stunning first film. He also questioned martial law rule in Batch ’81. It was no surprise then that he would pursue a more political film after the assassination of Ninoy Aquino. But, the stars must be aligned too.

The murder of Ninoy led to mass protests and a more relaxed censorship atmosphere. Mother Lily bravely took the option of producing Sister Stella L. Meanwhile, Vilma Santos was tired of portraying liberated women. She fought for the role of an activist nun. She begged Mother Lily to give her the role.

The original script by Pete Lacaba was voluminous. He excused himself with the pruning of the script because he was then working on Bayan Ko: Kapit sa Patalim. De Leon and Jose Almojuela did the job of shortening the script. Ellen Ongkeko added some dialogues.

Lacaba noted during the 2008 Active Vista Film Festival that de Leon found the Vilma film dated. The reclusive director preferred the showing of the magnificent documentary film Signos in lieu of Sister Stella L. While the former may have more bite, the Vilma starrer is still a highly relevant film and a true classic.

Mother Lily and Vilma Santos at the 25th anniversary forum
Rightly acknowledged as a gem of Philippine cinema by film critics in a March 20, 2009 forum, the film dealt with labor problems, persecution of media, and harassment of religious people. Those problems are still with us. Some critics comment on the failure of the film to expound on the events leading to the strike. I think the Brechtian film is telling the viewers to seek out the answers in the real world.

Immersion and social action is what the film is pushing for. The classic ending employed the 'breaking the fourth wall' technique. Sister Stella L is directly talking to the audience. She exhorts people to come out in the streets and fight for their rights. She ended her spiel with
"Kung hindi tayo kikilos, sino'ng kikilos? Kung hindi ngayon, kailan pa?"

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