Remember Calauit? The new Imelda docu takes us back to one of the Marcoses’ absurd legacies 2
A scene from the Showtime docu The Kingmaker: In the 70s, the Marcoses shipped animals from Kenya to the Philippines. Screengrab from the documentary.

Remember Calauit? The new Imelda docu takes us back to one of the Marcoses’ absurd legacies

“The Kingmaker” began as an exploration of one of Imelda Marcos’s most absurd flexing of power and penchant for excess—the safari of Calauit island. The film's director Lauren Greenfield says the First Lady's famous shoe collection is no match to this Palawan fantasy made real. 
Jam Pascual | Jan 31 2020

There’s a certain stereotype of the former First Lady Imelda Marcos that still persists—that of someone ditzy, vain, and politically passive; an oblivious beauty queen who could buy all the shoes she wanted because her hubby was pillaging the nation’s coffers.

In truth, Imelda Marcos is and always has been a formidable political force. She has been instrumental in restoring her family to power and scrubbing clean the atrocious sins of her husband Ferdinand dictatorship. And while many texts that have come before have made this point (see: The Conjugal Dictatorship by Primitivo Mijares) this is the message of The Kingmaker, the Showtime documentary directed by Lauren Greenfield.

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Remember Calauit? The new Imelda docu takes us back to one of the Marcoses’ absurd legacies 3
Among her souvenirs: Imelda redefined excess, as can be gleaned from The Kingmaker.

As a whole, the documentary is a portrait of a corrupt government, and how its machinery is mostly puppeteered by one powerful family and its singular matriarch, a self-styled mother of the nation. But the movie also highlights one of Imelda’s absurdest projects, as Greenfield mentions in her The Filipino Channel interview with Ginger Conejero. “This film came about when I read an article about a little know legacy of hers—certainly little known in the United States—which is Calauit, this animal island, where she depopulated an island of its indigenous people, and brought in animals from Africa on a boat.”

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In the 1970s, Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos visited Kenya for a safari tour, as people in power do. Taken by the beauty of these animals (and perhaps by envy, seeing something beautiful that she did not own), Imelda sought to take giraffes, zebras, impala, wild boar, and gazelles to the Philippines. Ferdinand presented David Anthony Parkinson, an Englishman in the business of transferring African animals to zoos, with a briefcase full of money to make this happen. These animals were captured, packed into boxes, and shipped across the world on a whim.

Lacking sufficient facilities literally anywhere in the country to house these animals, Imelda—on the kind of impulse felt only by the obscenely wealthy—handpicked an island to be her own literal safari. She picked Calauit island, in the province of Palawan, mostly inhabited by the Tagbanwa people. So in 1976, the Marcoses forcefully displaced around 254 families, casting them off to Halsey Island, a former leper colony.

Remember Calauit? The new Imelda docu takes us back to one of the Marcoses’ absurd legacies 4
A scene from The Kingmaker.

According to Greenfield, from the same interview, “By the time I got there to film, there were four generations of inbreeding [among the animals], and the island had lost most of its resources after the Marcoses had went into exile.” Natives who have tried to resettle into their home have had to deal with invasive animals messing with the island’s ecosystem and eating their crops. A few times, Bongbong Marcos has visited the island to hunt wild boar.

“For me, this was such an interesting, symbolic, and also egregious extravagance,” Greenfield says. “The shoes were kind of nothing compared to this project which involved living things and human rights, and what ended up being decades of damage from one impulsive idea.” Transplanting exotic animals into a Philippine island and displacing its indigenous communities in the process, all to craft a personal piece of Kenya, is indeed a truly Imeldific feat.

Remember Calauit? The new Imelda docu takes us back to one of the Marcoses’ absurd legacies 5
The Calauit Safari Park still exists today. Photograph by Paulo Ordoveza on Wikimedia Commons

The footage is wild to see when you get to that part of the movie. Exotic, antlered fauna gallop on ground they were not born to, as a forgotten people tell the story of their trauma.

Considering the work the Marcos family has undertaken to revise its legacy, it isn’t surprising that Calauit island doesn’t appear in our textbooks, to be discussed in our history classes. I certainly have never learned about it until The Kingmaker. It sounds more like a bit from Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, or a scene from a cartoon.

Remember Calauit? The new Imelda docu takes us back to one of the Marcoses’ absurd legacies 6
Not just a metaphor. Photograph by Paulo Ordoveza on Wikimedia Commons

Greenfield set out at first to talk about just Calauit island for a documentary, but she ultimately decided to treat the safari as a metaphor—for inbreeding in a political system that worships clans and heirs; for how obscene wealth disguises the violence it produces as acts of love; and for the former First Lady herself, an extravagant sum of expenses that, disguised as an act of paradise-making, continues to screw the people over decades later. There could not be a more apt metaphor. Except it isn’t just a metaphor. 

Because for all the deceptions Imelda tries to peddle in her interviews in The Kingmaker—she herself chillingly claims “Perception is real, truth is not”—this island is real. The money she spent was real. And the aftereffects of her reign, all too real, still burden us today.