‘Fiercely unrepentant, extremely charismatic’

Community Opinion & Analysis Sep 27, 2019 at 4:50 pm

ImeldaMarcosREVIEW: The Kingmaker

By Marites N. Sison

Lauren Greenfield’s The Kingmaker is a masterly account of the Marcos family’s unexpected political resurgence in the Philippines after years of ignominious exile. 
For Filipinos, especially those who suffered under the brutal dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, it is bound to be a difficult and chilling film to watch.

For one, seeing and hearing Imelda Marcos and her children all over again feels like a cruel deja vu. Granted that at 86, the years haven’t been totally kind to the once belle of the ball Imelda — her girth has expanded considerably, her face is puffed up and she is suffering from glaucoma. Yet, she is still the Imelda we once knew and had to endure for many, many years.  She remains perfectly coiffed, she is dripping in jewelry, she still has her own theories about everything, she is still feigning innocence, and seeking sympathy for having grown up an orphan. And yes, she and her children remain fiercely unrepentant and continue to deny having amassed an estimated $10 billion in hidden wealth from the Philippine treasury.

But what is more disconcerting is that the film succeeds in capturing the Imelda most of us didn’t believe possible — as the power behind the throne, the kingmaker. Yet, it had been there all along, and archival footages of a stunning and statuesque Imelda meeting with the likes of Mao Zedong, Muhammad Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein and singing to  swooning masses in campaign rallies  may have seemed like a joke then, except that they are not now. She and Ferdinand Marcos were not called the “conjugal dictatorship” for nothing.

Malakas at Maganda“I always get what I want,” Imelda says at one point in the documentary, and it’s hard not to believe her. Lest people forget, this is the same Imelda Marcos who, in 1981, wanted the Manila Film Center built in record time that when during its construction a horrible accident occurred and at least 12 were buried in quick cement, their bodies were reportedly never retrieved so the building could be finished.

The idea for a documentary came to Greenfield after reading a Bloomberg article in 2013 about Calauit Safari Park. Like many, what she remembered most about the Marcoses were Imelda’s jawdropping number of shoes.  “I didn’t know about this unbelievable legacy where the Marcoses had depopulated an island and brought in animals from Africa, so I started with that, thinking it was an incredible symbol of the consequences of wealth and power, and the unintended consequences of that,” she told the audience who watched at TIFF. (Greenfield, who received the 2012 Sundance Film Festival’s Award for directing the documentary feature film, The Queen of Versailles, has been studying wealth and extravagence for decades. She also directed the highly-acclaimed film, Generation Wealth.)

Greenfield says she had also been interested in the story of Imelda’s incredible election as a congresswoman despite allegations of fraud and illegal wealth, and later, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos’ candidacy for vice-president. When Bongbong’s candidacy became viable and probable, Greenfield knew the story was far from over.  When Duterte won and started behaving like a strongman, and when it became increasingly clear that he was helping the Marcoses to regain Malacañang Palace and rebuild their political dynasty,  it dawned on Greenfield that the theme of her film was clear — of history painfully repeating itself.

kingmakerGreenfield acknowledged that she depended a lot on her Filipino crew and producers to help her understand the larger picture. “A big part of this story is what is the truth? What’s the history? Who’s rewriting it? Who’s in charge?,” she said. “In the beginning, I was in the world of Imelda, who was incredibly convincing, extremely charismatic. I realize that when you put her story, especially in front of people who might have been too young to remember, you could believe it.” Indeed, as the film shows, the Philippines’ educational system has failed to educate generations of Filipinos about Martial Law, in which thousands were killed, at least 70,000 people were imprisoned, and about 34,000 were tortured. A powerful propaganda campaign launched on social media in recent years has also distorted the history of Ferdinand Marcos’ 20-year dictatorship in ways that none of us could ever have imagined. There are young Filipinos today who say Martial Law was the best thing that happened to the Philippines because everyone was disciplined.

When she was introduced to political prisoners under Martial Law, Greenfield says she realized that Imelda’s view of history “did not align with historical accounts and first person testimonials, and it was important for audiences to understand what was not.” 
One of the strongest, most indelible scenes in the film are the interviews with former Martial Law political prisoners — activist and politician Loretta Ann Rosales, journalist and poet Jose Lacaba, and political activist May Rodriguez. “Why do we even allow Imelda to speak?,” Rodriguez, who was assaulted and nearly raped while in military custody, asks incredulously and exasperatedly. The three, with their quiet strength and dignity, are the moral centres in the film.

The Marcoses provided Greenfield with unfettered access and what a gift it was in Greenfield’s smart and sensitive hands. We see a different side to Imelda – funny, even witty at times, yet calculating. Asked whether she had anything to do with the assassination of Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, Imelda quips, “Why would I kill him? I have nothing against him except that he talked too much.”

We also  see up close the grotesqueness and the arrogance of power and privilege: a heavily made up and bejewelled Imelda clutches voluminous 50 peso and 1,000 peso bills that she doles out to streetchildren and to cancer patients at a children’s ward (“pambili ng candy”). We hear Bongbong Marcos talk about how he planned his return to the Philippines  (he claims to have asked a friend to buy him a first-class ticket because there’s no way in hell he’s flying coach).

It took Greenfield five years to make because she says, “it was important to get it right.” She did.