How does one talk about Imelda Marcos to an outsider? To most of the world, Imelda is not much more than a former first lady with an insatiable thirst for shoes and spending money. In her day, she could spend $2,000 (yes, in US dollars) on chewing gum and more than $10,000 on bed sheets. The image that Imelda projected was one of a glamorous existence; she was the ultimate purveyor of beauty.
But that’s not the Imelda the world ought to know. The Imelda the world ought to know is the one that, together with her late dictator husband, had a hand in the death and torture of thousands of people, and plunged the Philippines firmly into the Third World. And despite having been ousted by the People Power Revolution over 30 years ago, Imelda and her family still wield power today.
The Imelda the world ought to know is the one that, together with her late dictator husband, had a hand in the death and torture of thousands of people, and plunged the Philippines firmly into the Third World.
This is the picture that Lauren Greenfield’s documentary The Kingmaker paints. What first started out as an exploration of Imelda’s filthy riches (Lauren’s previous work Generation Wealth was about society’s obsession with money) later became a full-blown exposition on Imelda’s will to bend the truth and shape it in her image. Shot over a period of five years, from the time of Noynoy Aquino until the current administration, the film’s first draw is that it gets very up-close and personal with the Marcoses, interacting with and shadowing Imelda herself — but only until certain tides change.
In one of the film’s opening scenes, Imelda is seen in a coaster bus, riding around Manila. She points out Malacañang Palace (not a comfortable place to live, according to her), and when the bus stops at a red light, she opens a window to hand out a P50 bill to a child. Moments later, she is mobbed by more, escalating into a crowd only to be saved by the green light ahead. The scene is very telling of the condition Filipinos live in, and how Imelda remains a supported figure in the 21st century. At the end of the ride, she arrives at the Children’s Medical Center, where she hands out P1,000 bills to the children in confinement. “Pang-candy,” she says.
The film’s first half focuses on Imelda’s history, and Lauren gets the story straight from the source. It’s almost comical, watching Imelda talk about her past glory — in one scene in her Manila home, she takes the cameras on a tour of a makeshift gallery of photos placed on top of tables in the backyard. When she picks up a frame, a domino effect ensues and a couple of frames shatter on the pavement. As one of her staff members picks up the shards, Imelda doesn’t even flinch. It’s almost like that time she reportedly ordered quick-drying cement be poured over the bodies of at least 169 people when her Manila Film Center project collapsed.
About halfway through the film, just when you start to think that this might just be propaganda for Imelda, it finally takes a turn into the dark side. In a recorded interview screened after the film, Lauren says this was when she realized that Imelda Marcos is an unreliable narrator. As we are taken to Calauit Island, Imelda’s pet project that involved poaching animals from Africa and sailing them to the Philippines in crates, interviews with activists like Etta Rosales and May Rodriguez recount the horrors of the martial law years. Images of excess and luxury are juxtaposed with graphic descriptions of seemingly endless human rights violations.
The documentary reveals all the nittygritty, some we may already know, other details not so much. According to Lauren, the Marcos money trail led her to Duterte. And that’s where Marcos influence lies in our lives today — the family basically placed the current president.
As the film moves into the present, it introduces the rise of Imelda’s children, Imee and Bongbong, who, as you may know, have risen considerably in the present political scene. It is the lead-up to the 2016 elections, and Bongbong is running for vice president. The documentary reveals all the nittygritty, some we may already know, other details not so much. According to Lauren, the Marcos money trail led her to Duterte. And that’s where Marcos influence lies in our lives today — the family basically placed the current president. When Bongbong loses the election to Leni Robredo, access to the family is significantly less.
Perhaps the most striking and depressing scene of the film takes place in a school, in what is inescapable proof of Marcos revisionism. A teacher asks her students about their impressions of the Marcos era, and most respond with resounding praise. “Things were better then,” they say. As the documentary explains, their ignorance is the product of rewriting history from all fronts, including social media and YouTube.
In what is probably the most memorable line from the film, Imelda says, “Perception is real, the truth is not.” No matter how much we wish this weren’t true, it seems Imelda’s campaign is winning. Today’s world is rife with falsehoods and manipulation, and getting to the real truth is almost impossible. But not all hope is lost — and The Kingmaker is proof that calling out the truth is at least a first step.
The Kingmaker is screening at CCP’s Tanghalang Huseng Batute and Tanghalang Manuel Conde on Wednesday, Feb. 19 at 1:30 p.m., 4 p.m., 6 p.m., and 9 p.m. Tickets are available for P250 at culturalcenter.gov.ph and ticketworld.com.ph.