Imelda Marcos in a still from 'The Kingmaker.' (Lauren Greenfield)
“The poor always look for a star in the dark of the night.”
So speaks the haute-coutured and bejeweled Imelda Marcos in the new documentary The Kingmaker, explaining how she continues to bewitch a sizable chunk of the electorate in the nation that she and husband Ferdinand plundered over two strife-ridden decades.
For The Kingmaker, filmmaker Lauren Greenfield has artfully spliced historical footage from the martial law era in the Philippines into contemporary accounts of the Marcos family’s mind-boggling political resurrection. Greenfield’s cameras follow the former first lady, now a popular congresswoman, as she bestows wads of cash and a vaguely maternal gaze on beggars and cancer-stricken children, shows off her gilded mansions, and mobilizes loyalists at rallies for her son Ferdinand, Jr. (affectionately known as “Bongbong”) during his bid for the vice presidency in 2016.
Throughout, Imelda has barely dialed down the opulence that made her an easy target for the outraged in the immediate aftermath of the 1986 ‘people power’ revolution, which sent the family into exile in Hawaii. She’s an easy target for filmmakers as well—especially Greenfield, who has a flair for getting the vain and super-rich to incriminate themselves.
Imelda piles on the whoppers: “During my time there were no beggars in Manila.” Mao Tse-Tung, she says, was so enchanted with her that he kissed her hand and said, “‘Mrs. Marcos, you started the end of the Cold War.’” Of opposition senator Benigno Aquino, who was assassinated in 1983 (many believe at the order of Imelda), she claimed: “He was no threat to me.” Of the family’s dramatic escape from Malacañang Palace in U.S. military helicopters after negotiations with the Americans to secure their safety, she declared: “We were kidnapped.” On her ordeal as she stood trial in a New York courtroom on federal racketeering and fraud charges: “I was alone, widowed, homeless and country-less and penniless.” This after recounting how she stashed fistfuls of diamond jewelry in boxes of baby diapers minutes before fleeing the palace—diamonds which she said eventually went to pay the lawyers.
The camera’s accumulation of visual detail is as damning as the lies: vulgar kitsch rubbing elbows with precious artwork on Imelda’s walls; government buildings, Marcos-era vanity projects, in decay; mountains of legal documents; a flaccid, sweating Bongbong hustled on stage by his mother at a campaign rally.
Then there are the surgically precise and devastating accounts of activists who survived the brutal martial law regime.
No less appalling is testimony from farmers indigenous to Calauit Island, who were uprooted to make room for Imelda’s perverted vision of an African safari park on Philippine soil, populated by exotic animals shipped over in 1976. The villagers returned after the fall of the Marcos regime, only to find their land overrun by zebras, giraffes and antelopes, who were now suffering the effects of excessive inbreeding, an alien landscape, and inadequate veterinary care. Images of a maggot-infested giraffe make a grim emblem of the fallout from unchecked greed and exploitation.
Interviews with Marcos frenemies, crisp and terse, do the family no favors—not even the kooky Texan rancher with his own twisted perspective on the excesses of the regime: “Tell me a country that doesn’t have corruption. And don’t say the U.S. because we are the worst.”
For all her fantasizing and self-contradictions, Imelda does not come across in the film as vapid, but steely and shrewd. The same cannot be said for the presumptive heir: Bongbong sheepishly admits that “when [my mother] speaks, I think I do not need to speak anymore.”
In the Philippines, elections for president and vice-president are independently contested; when Bongbong’s bid for the vice presidency failed, Duterte scorned the winner, activist lawyer Leni Robredo, and has supported Bongbong’s attempts to unseat her. Many fear that, once Bongbong has exhausted legal avenues, he will resort to unlawful means, abetted by Duterte, whose killing sprees in the phony war on drugs form a chilling coda to The Kingmaker.
Imelda has long been in the crosshairs of respected Filipino documentarians—notably, Veronica Pedrosa and Ramona Diaz, whose meticulous, gut-wrenching work paved the way for Greenfield (and belies the publicity around Greenfield's "unprecedented access" to Imelda). Imelda has also been the subject of a disco poperetta by David Byrne. But Greenfield’s timing should hit a nerve with Filipinos and anyone who fears for the future of their democracy, in an era when powerful politicians can deploy electronic disinformation campaigns executed by troll armies that make themselves available, like mercenaries, to bad actors globally.
I was a child of the martial law era—too young to fully grasp the atrocities that were being committed, yet aware that schoolmates a few years ahead of me had marched in the streets, constructed Molotov cocktails in our science labs, and mysteriously disappeared: either gone underground with the resistance, exiled abroad with their families, or hauled off by the regime and never seen again.
I did have a ringside seat to the muzzling of the press, for my father was the managing editor of the Philippines Herald in the run-up to martial law. He had been a war correspondent, then bureau chief, for the Associated Press in cities around Asia before taking the Herald post. He incurred Imelda’s wrath early on when he ran a front-page photo of Marcos delivering a speech, shot in profile, that revealed the president standing on a crate hidden behind the podium to make him look taller. Apparently, newspapers were expected to stick to frontal views of the president.
But that was before the clampdown. Upon declaring martial law on Sept. 23, 1972, Marcos shuttered all media operations, rounded up hundreds of his political opponents, and began the expropriation and transfer of businesses from oligarchs to his loyalists. Over the next few months, newspapers, radio and TV stations would reopen—in the hands of Marcos cronies or with government censors occupying their offices. The Herald would not consent to such an arrangement, and never saw print again.
Trying to explain the durability of the Marcoses, one commentator in The Kingmaker characterized Filipinos as “a very forgiving people.” If this were true, then how to explain the grudges that have ignited violence between clans, the political feuds that have persisted through generations? Greenfield didn’t set out to document the warlordism that has plagued the country since World War II, nor the uneasy tango between the oligarchs and a succession of presidents. Yet without that context, it’s easy to cast the Marcoses and Duterte as singular villains whose overthrow would restore democracy to a fundamentally egalitarian society.