Directed by Lauren Greenfield
What a boon Imelda Marcos must have been to Lauren Greenfield. With films like Generation Wealth and The Queen of Versailles under her belt, Greenfield has made the yawning gap between the rich and the poor her specialty. (Versailles had a delicious frisson of schadenfreude running through it, as the conspicuous consumption of a time-share baron’s wife collided with the bursting of the housing bubble in the late-aughts.) But the documentarian got something epic with Asia’s Iron Butterly: Originally setting out to investigate Imelda’s shockingly ostentatious purchase of safari animals from Kenya, and then displacing 254 families from Calauit island in Palawan so she could house the animals, Greenfield instead came away with a portrait of the deep-seated rot in our politics.
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The Kingmaker starts as any documentary about Imelda must: the subject surrounded by her paintings, her tacky objets d'art, addressing questions on her shoes, and babbling about being "a mother to the world." During one interview, Imelda plays for sympathy but faceplants on a Freudian slip instead: “I was eight when I lost my money—my mother…” In this respect, The Kingmaker feels like an update on Ramona Diaz’s Imelda (2003), dropping in to see what the despot’s wife has been up to ever since she drew insane diagrams about beauty and her relationship to the world.
And what she’s been up to is no good: After distributing one-thousand peso bills to pediatric cancer patients (“Pang-kendi sa mga bata,” she whispers to her aide), the film shows her aggressively plotting to bring her son Bongbong back to within a hair’s-breadth of Malacañang with his failed 2016 vice-presidential bid, a naked attempt to regain power and erase her family’s blighted place in Philippine history.
And sadly, shockingly, it’s working. In exchange for financial support during the campaign, current president Rodrigo Duterte has met the Marcoses with open arms as they returned from the cold. He granted Imelda’s fond wish to give Ferdinand Marcos a hero’s burial, and hinted he will only resign from the presidency once Bongbong is installed as his vice-president. Lapses in our educational system’s history curriculum and the flooding of disinformation over social media took care of the rest. And all the while, Imelda leans into the narrative that her husband’s two-decades-plus tenure as a decimator of the Philippines’ economy and trampler of democracy was a golden age for the country, even as affecting first-hand accounts from Martial Law detainees like May Rodriguez, Etta Rosales and Pete Lacaba belie her assertions. “Perception is real,” Imelda chillingly says, “and truth is not.”
The Kingmaker wobbles when it overshoots its reach, as when it labors to draw a straight line between Marcos’ human-rights abuses and Duterte’s extrajudicial killings (one despot’s depredations are never quite the same as another’s) and uses the Calauit game preserve as a metaphor for the destructive in-breeding of dynastic politics (although the point is hilariously made when Bongbong’s son Sandro is shown asking for another ballot because he shaded in two presidential candidates).
As a Filipino who is living the nightmare of a Marcos re-ascendancy on a daily basis, there is little fresh insight to be gleaned from The Kingmaker. What it does offer is fresh outrage: It is a reminder that we have learned exactly nothing from our painful history, and a warning to other democracies teetering on the brink—looking at you, America and Europe—that the slide is oiled and the drop is precipitous. But if plans for a general Philippine release and a roadshow presentation of The Kingmaker to schools come to fruition, some good might yet come out of its conception. Imelda was a boon to its filmmaker and a curse to her people, but The Kingmaker might yet become a blessing to a country in sore need of enlightenment.