When film-maker Lauren Greenfield began documenting the life of Imelda Marcos, she believed that the finished product might resemble something like a redemption story.
Greenfield imagined the former first lady of the Philippines would want to distance herself from the regime overseen by her late husband Ferdinand Marcos between 1965 and 1986, one defined by martial law and misappropriated public funds. “I filmed from the time she was 85, and now she’s 90,” Greenfield says. “I thought that near the end of her life there might be a feeling of separation from [Ferdinand] and some of the things he did. There were ways in which she was very vulnerable. She was very young when she married him, they got married very quickly, and he was much more powerful than her.”
During the first act of The Kingmaker, Greenfield’s gaze takes on an almost sympathetic quality, as if to accommodate the facts of Marcos’s early life. In the mid 1950s, Ferdinand, then a member of the Philippine House of Representatives, whisked away Imelda, a beauty queen in her mid-20s, on an 11-day courtship that culminated in a secret marriage ceremony.
“When you’re with her, you cannot help but like her,” Greenfield admits. Even on film, Imelda is charming, an effervescent character trussed up in ornate, jewel-toned gowns.
In many ways, this is still her public reputation: a Marie Antoinette best known for spearheading extravagant architectural projects and for her collection of luxury shoes, said to be 3,000 pairs strong in the 1980s. But as the story goes on, you begin to understand you have been subject to a kind of misdirect.
“I think you realise, maybe 15 minutes into the film, that she’s not a reliable narrator,” says Greenfield with a wry smile, “yet I think she does see the world and herself in a way that is very different than how we see her. That influenced the structure of the film, because I often just stay within the character’s world. But I realised at a certain point that her articulation of history did not align with any objective account of history, any testimony, or first person witness.”
With the introduction of several subjects whom Greenfield refers to as “the truth-tellers”, the gruesome cost of the Marcos reign becomes apparent: the abject poverty of the Filipino people, the accounts of the torture and molestation of prominent activists, and the horrific deaths of thousands under martial rule. Marcos was ousted from power in 1986, he and his family forced to flee to the US for a short period, but were able to return after Ferdinand’s death three years later, and began rebuilding their political empire once more.
Greenfield’s interest in Imelda was piqued when she learnt she had been re-elected as a congresswoman; the matriarch was already a figure of note in the film-maker’s work on wealth. Like many in the western world, Greenfield knew about the shoes and the presidential palace. More central for her was the question: how does someone win an election in a country from which they have been accused of stealing billions of dollars?
The answer, Greenfield found, was something of a paradox. “In a way, her materialism wasn’t for her, it was for the country. She sees it as a kind of philanthropy, and I think that there is some truth to that. People look up to it and admire her for that.” She continues: “It’s the power of celebrity, the power of name recognition, the power of glamour. It think she’s really on to something when she says, ‘The poor like a star in the dark of night.’”
And there are comparisons to be made with contemporary leaders. “In a lot of ways, this story is very Trumpian,” remarks Greenfield. “She talks about all of her friends who helped her when she was down, and they’re people like Mao Zedong and Saddam Hussein. It’s like Trump saying, ‘Well, Putin is very nice.’ Well, of course he’s nice to you!”
Greenfield often found herself in awe of what her protagonist was willing to discuss, which included the assassination of Ninoy Aquino, her husband’s foremost political rival. “One of the things that ended up on the cutting room floor is she said that she gave Chairman Mao the idea for the Cultural Revolution, and that it was the best thing that ever happened,” Greenfield says with palpable disbelief. “She said, ‘because it was about culture,’ they were celebrating culture.”
The Kingmaker is Greenfield’s fourth feature film, following her 2018 documentary Generation Wealth. “In a way that film was a springboard for The Kingmaker,” she observes. “I spent 25 years looking at how wealth and consumerism have corrupted the American dream, and how that has been exported around the world. I’ve spent a lot of time looking at materialism and the 1 per cent and that drew me to Imelda in the beginning.”
“It ended up really becoming my first political film,” Greenfield continues. “It also turned into a much deeper and more tragic look at how history repeats itself when you don’t remember it, and how deep the link between money and politics is.”
The film’s final act reveals the extent of the Marcos family’s imminent political comeback, aided by the sitting president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte. It implies heavily that his 2016 campaign might have been financed by public money the Marcoses escaped with when they fled the country.
Duterte has shown unwavering support for the installation of Imelda’s son Bongbong as his vice-president, and has questioned the legitimacy of sitting VP Leni Robredo. If he succeeds in unseating her, it would clear the path for Bongbong and make the return of the Marcos family to power all but inevitable.
“Under the Duterte regime, the free press has been assaulted,” Greenfield says. “Maria Ressa, who started [Philippine news website] Rappler, has been charged with all kinds of lawsuits, and is out on bail. The main television network, ABS-CBN, is looking at possibly losing its licence. It’s a very dangerous and precarious place for journalists.”
Despite winning awards at film festivals, Greenfield does not believe her documentary will ultimately make a difference to the situation. “I think it probably won’t matter,” she says candidly, “Most of the voters in the Philippines are not going to see this type of film.”
And what will Imelda think, a woman who relies so thoroughly on her own image? Greenfield sighs as she replies. “I’ve given up on predicting how subjects will respond; I really don’t know.” She pauses and reconsiders. “There are framed magazine articles all over her house. Many of them are negative, from the western press. And yet, she proudly displays them in her home.”
In cinemas in the US now and in the UK from December 13
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