The Kingmaker, Lauren Greenfield’s superbly revealing documentary about Imelda Marcos, the former First Lady of the Philippines, is a fascinating and horrifying must-see.
Living in a post-truth worldby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
When Philippines’ President Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda were finally deposed in 1986 after 21 years of dictatorship, they had become notorious for the extent of their damaging plundering of billions from the national economy and their off-the-scale personal extravagance.
After her husband’s death five years later, Imelda was allowed to return from exile in the US. She promptly renewed her efforts to embed a Marcos dynasty in the political DNA of the Philippines – promoting her ridiculously unqualified son Bongbong to be vice-president, daughter Imee as a state governor and, as he came of age, grooming her grandson Sandro. Her sense of entitlement and long-term plan was responsible for the election of the current feral, murderous strongman president, Ferdinand Duterte, who she intends to step aside for Bongbong in due course. We shall see if he does or if he’s playing her.
The Kingmaker charts the exploits of this now-bloated former beauty queen, now a stately 89-year-old, still dressed in the striking fashions of her youth, who comes across in this superb documentary as “exquisitely horrible”, to quote Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian. We see her living a still obscenely wealthy lifestyle, sitting in a room full of priceless works of art by Picasso and Michelangelo (which she denies were ever there).
Her official visits to hospitals or schools are like a royal progress where she’s accompanied, as well as by the team of make-up artists who dash in for frequent touch-ups, by a timid minion carrying a femininely blue briefcase stuffed with 100 peso banknotes, which she deals like playing cards from the safety of her limousine window into the hands of imploring, clustering street children.
Lauren Greenfield’s masterly documentary reels you in with astonishing scenes like these before it ever so politely and reasonably goes for the jugular as it reveals the corruption, deceit, excess and plotting behind the grotesque mask of the self-styled ‘mother of the nation’.
Self-deluded or supremely cynical? Imelda shows biting insight and understanding of the media when she says “”Perception is real, the truth is not”. She consistently paints herself as a victim who only ever wanted the best for her country, though she admits to missing the ‘clout’ of being First Lady.
Greenfield takes us through the history of Imelda’s life as First Lady, which, apart from her wild personal spending of the national budget, included an ‘edifice’ complex that resulted in many over-ambitious, expensive public buildings and works and her insane project of founding a game reserve, which involved evicting village-dwellers from their homes on a small island and replacing them with herds of wild animals – giraffes, zebras etc –imported carelessly from Africa. Greenfield makes a link between the resultant inbreeding of the animals and that of human families.
Most moving are the recent interviews with activists who were imprisoned and tortured when young during the Marcos-imposed years of martial law.
“Sovereignty, freedom, justice” – that’s the Marcos slogan. The same exploitative slogan that’s repeated here by those who feel oppressed by the yoke of the hated European Union. And also like the con trick taking place nearer to home, the documentary includes vox pops among the wretchedly poor of Manila, who see Imelda, now a senator and still a member of the elite, as someone who somehow had their interests at heart and would improve their lives.
The Kingmaker is fascinating, horrifying and essential viewing to understand a phenomenon of personality that’s both specific and international.
The Kingmaker screened at the BFI London Film Festival and is released on 13 December 2019 in the UK.