The Kingmaker Review
Beneath the thick make-up and perfected smile of Imelda Marcos there seems to be something more sinister and unnerving about her appearance. “Perception is real and truth is not,” she says when speaking about accusations of torture and abuse of power, and it's this understanding of how to manipulate her image that has enabled her to remain outside of a prison cell for so long. It’s a warped form of cognitive dissonance that director Lauren Greenfield has captured in her documentary, The Kingmaker, showing the rise, fall and steady rise again of the Marcos clan in the Philippines.
Greenfield has spent much of her career documenting the rich and deluded, which made Marcos the perfect subject. She is famous for her lavish lifestyle which included the ownership of thousands of luxury brand shoes and the spending over $2 billion of state money during her time in power. But the longer Greenfield spent with Imelda, the more obvious it became she was an unreliable narrator, locked away in a fantasy bubble refusing to face up to the pain her family has caused the Philippine people for the past half century.
Imelda dominates the first half of the film speaking about her journey to government alongside former husband, and now deceased President, Ferdinand Marcos. At the same time she is galvanising support behind her son, Bongbong, while he seeks election as Vice President. Greenfield managed to secure good access to the former First Lady with a one-on-one interview at home, also following her as she travels through the Manila slums (“it never used to be like this” she says with faux incredulity) handing out cash from the huge wad fixed to her side. She makes a good fist of playing the ‘woman of the people’ role, but it is little more than a sham.
Her husband ruled the country with an iron fist, imposing fascist ideals that ravaged the country’s economy. Being First Lady was not a role Imelda felt comfortable with at first – or so she says – but it's one she soon grew accustomed to. Ferdinand was fearful of a coup uprising if he left the country (or just hiding his extra-martial affairs), leaving international relations to his wife. She took on the role of foreign envoy, travelling around the world meeting some of the most powerful leaders of nations. Yet no matter how far from the Philippines she was, her indulgences were never far away, buying the finest jewellery, classic art, established property and even a collection of wild animals for her own private island zoo. Nevermind the 250 people that already lived there - they had to leave to find a new home.
The further Greenfield digs into Imelda’s life and that of her family, the more disturbing their story becomes. The second half of The Kingmaker expands on Bongbong's attempts to get the Marcos name back into government during the 2016 election, and Greenfield widens her net to include voices from those in opposition and others who survived the brutalism of the Marcos’ reign. They paint a very different picture of life under their rule and raise the horrific prospect of them returning to power in years to come.
From 1965 the Marcos family were in office for 21 years, before being hounded out in a snap election and forced to leave the country. Over the past few decades hundreds of legal cases have been brought against Imelda, with a special agency set up to recoup some of the stolen billions. Greenfield shows us how she has since returned home and slowly reintegrated herself with those in power, most notably with populist President Rodrigo Duterte, who won the last election in 2016. Under his rule the ‘war on drugs’ he promised while campaigning has turned into a slaughterhouse, with over 5,000 suspected addicts or dealers reportedly killed by death squads.
Greenfield has never been one to work outside the lines of the traditional documentary form and that remains the case in her fourth film. The Kingmaker relies on talking heads and archive footage, but it’s a story well told through to its unsettling conclusion. News from the Philippines tends to remain off the radar for many of us in the West, and we are given a troubling insight into the future of the country, with the Marcos family ties still embedded deep within the government. Duterte has even gone as far to say on a number of occasions he would resign if it meant Bongbong would succeed him instead of current Vice President Leni Robredo.
Where her previous films have attempted to unravel the psychology of those loaded with money and social power, here Greenfield travels down a different route, shifting her focus to show how one woman’s deluded revisionism threatens to plunge a country into further decades of chaos. Viewed on her own, Imelda could easily be dismissed as an image-obsessed nut job whose memories of the past are no longer of consequence. But when you stand back to see the bigger picture being painted by Greenfield, you can only worry what lies ahead for the Philippines.
The Kingmaker opens in select UK cinemas on December 13