The director of “The Kingmaker,” in a live Q&A session on Facebook moderated by Chiara Zambrano, talks about the “indomitable” Imelda Marcos, her family’s return to power, and why inequality among Filipinos has allowed for the persistence of political dynasties.
Lauren Greenfield is an acclaimed filmmaker described by the New York Times as “America's foremost visual chronicler of the plutocracy.” Her “The Kingmaker” was a hit at the world’s biggest film festivals, including prestigious Venice Film Festival, and has been widely recognized as one of the best documentaries of 2019. She is also known for her other works, “Queen of Versailles” and “Generation Wealth”.
So let’s talk a bit about in your interest in the world of opulence and wealth? What got you into this?
I got interested in Imelda Marcos through my journey in wealth. I’ve been thinking about photographing things about wealth and consumerism and inequality for many years and the trope of Imelda Marcos’ shoes is a vivid icon that lives —even when I was filming “Queen of Versailles” and Jackie Siegel brought me into her two-storey shoe closet, I was thinking of Imelda Marcos.
Then in around 2013, I read an article by a journalist named William Mellor who wrote about Calauit, this animal island that Imelda had created, which I didn’t know about and a lot of the people I talked to didn’t know about. And so even though people knew this excess of the shoes, I was so moved by this other, even kinda crazier and more egregious excess of the island because it involves living things —bringing animals from Africa and what ended up being decades of damage from the a kind of impulsive decision.
The film really began as a story about the island, and I thought I would interview Imelda Marcos. But I also thought she would just be one of the many voices about the story of what happened to the island, what happened to the people, what happened to the animals — a kind of dual survivor stories with Imelda Marcos because I was also fascinated by the fact that after having to leave, going into exile, having so many cases against her about the $5 (billion) to $10 billion that people believe they took, she she could come back to the Philippines and even be elected congresswoman.
But in a way, the beauty of documentaries is you’ll never know where you’re going to end up with, and a story I thought would be about history rushed unexpectedly into the present as it started to become an election story when Bongbong Marcos declared his candidacy for the vice presidency. It was then that it became ultimately a comeback story, a very improbable comeback story.
How did you end up getting extensive access to the Marcos family?
I started to collaborate with this journalist, William Mellor, and he had had a great experience making this article about Calauit and interviewing Imelda Marcos. He introduced me to her.
I was so intrigued that I thought if she’ll allow me to film then that would be so interesting. And so I came over and I interviewed Imelda Marcos, I interviewed Bongbong, I interviewed the people involved in the island and I just started to see what a rich story it was.
I found Mrs. Marcos very open to telling her story. I think you could see in the movie that she enjoys being on camera and enjoys telling her story. Sometimes we would talk for several hours —I don’t know if I should say “we would talk” because a lot of the time she was talking and I was listening. She is so good at managing the narrative and what we learn in the film is that she has a narrative that she wanted to tell. She wanted to tell her story her way.
And what I started to realize as I got into it more was that the story she was telling, while genuinely her point of view, bore no relation with the stories I was reading in the history books, or what I was hearing from other people, or learning from other films and historians.
So that really pushed me to bring in other points of view. So I started to interview people that were eyewitnesses, who were part of the story but from a different point of view. I call them “truth tellers” because in a way they were people who were actually there. Those accounts began to contradict Mrs. Marcos so that started to influence the ultimate story.
When you first approached the Marcoses and you decided to make this film, did you already have a message in mind? Or is it just a process of discovery?
I really did not know where this was going. In fact, people said, “How are you going to make this movie about this animal island and how does it connect to Mrs. Marcos now?” And I didn’t really know. I trusted my gut and intuition and what I felt was so interesting was the fact that Bongbong Marcos was running for high office.
In the beginning, this seemed like something that was so improbable. People didn’t really think he had a chance of winning.
And as the fortunes of the elections began to change, as it began to get momentum, I started to realize that: A.) Mrs. Marcos was an unreliable narrator but B.) what role their version of history served and how they were very successfully teaching people it.
Did the Marcos family specifically ask you what your story is going to be about? Or is it just a blanket yes? They are pretty savvy in terms of the media and their messaging. Were you at any point forced to toe their line, their narrative?
I think there were a couple of things going on. When I began in 2014, the Marcoses were not in power. The Aquinos were in power most of the time I was filming. And I think Imelda Marcos was not getting as much attention as she had in the heyday. Of course there’s still a huge amount of interest in her from around the world, but my sense was that she was interested in having the opportunity to tell her story, particularly to the international community.
And then there was an election. And I think when there’s an election, that’s also a story they were interested in telling —the story of the fact that they were not kicked out of the Philippines permanently, but they were coming back and they were coming back to power.
To their credit, they never asked to have approval over the film. I think, like you said, Imelda Marcos has dealt with the international media for many times, and I think they realized that we need independence. That said, I think you can see in the film that Mrs. Marcos does control her —she is very much in control of the story she’s putting forward to me. And I let her tell that story.
But I also brought in other points of view when the story veered off the truth, or the objective accounts of history.
I tried to kind of film around the edges and capture things around the edges so the viewer can make their own interpretations. Like we see that she likes to kinda of control her image, control her story. We see her makeup artist coming in and doing her makeup. When I’m photographing her and I ask her to look at my camera, she says, ‘Should I look at you?’ And I say yes. And then she looks the other way. Imelda Marcos does not take directions. She’s not going to take directions from me. I understood that.
I captured what she wanted but I also captured the stories going along the edges so the viewer would have a way to understand what was in front of them. For example, she starts telling me about all of the leaders that she was good friends with from around the world. And some of those leaders, her friends, were terrible dictators. Like Saddam Hussein, or Chairman Mao Zedong, or Gaddafi. When we see who her friends are, we see some insight into the character.
And then as she’s showing me all of these photographs, which she very beautifully art-directed in her backyard, some of them start to fall accidentally and the glass breaks on the ground. And Mrs. Marcos, whom I call indomitable, because she just keeps on going, she stays on mission, she stays on point, she continues telling her story, paying no attention to the broken glass on the ground.
But we, the viewer, sees the servant who’s picking up the glass and cleaning up the mess. And so I think it’s in a way, in those little moments, it teaches us how to the film, how to see what she presents but also the artifice.
Would you take it if you get the chance to go back to Imelda or any of the Marcoses to tell them, “You know I went around and asked around and what you said last time wasn’t really true?”
You know Bill Mellor told me this when I started, before when I had my first interview with Imelda Marcos — I was really nervous. I had never interviewed a First Lady before and I said, “What should I not ask her? What would be offensive or inappropriate? Is there anything I should stay away from?” And he said no.
And he said that it’s true with a lot of Filipinos is how forthright they are, and he said, “You can ask her anything.”
And it was really true. I really feel so fortunate for her candor during the interviews. Even though not everything was true, she’s still was an incredible storyteller . . . She would make these spontaneous admissions and I think that showed in a way the impunity with which she was able to operate. Most of the things that she has been accused of kind of bounced off her, like teflon. And so she really believes, I think, her story and she believes she is working for the good of the people. So she’s not afraid to kind of speak her truth.
And so even if I was nervous to ask her about the assassination of Benigno Aquino [Jr.], and she said, “Everybody always says I did that, but why would I? I had nothing against him except that he talked too much.” She was able to kind of bring in a way humor and candor to the hardest questions. But it allowed me to ask those hard questions, to ask what happened the paintings on your wall? Where did they go? Who took them? Why did they take them? Really there was nothing she wouldn’t answer. There was one question she wanted to stay away from, which was talking about Trump. I think she felt it wasn’t her place to talk about the American president.
How many years or months did it take for you to finish this amazing documentary?
It took five years, I began in 2014. The edit took two years. It was a very long and unexpected edit, but the ending of the movie was very long and unexpected. And we had no idea —I mean if I was doing the film about the animal island, I thought it would take one or two years, but as the elections started getting momentum, and when Bongbong Marcos became the frontrunner, and then of course when [President Rodrigo] Duterte and Trump were elected —all of these were game-changers in terms of what the story meant and what the ending of the story was.
I knew that it was finished when Duterte won because it was the return of the strongman, and that was a very unexpected ending. To see the alliance between the Marcos and Duterte was also unexpected. And then for Mrs. Marcos, who I called the kingmaker, to actually achieve one of her biggest goals which was the burial of her husband in the Heroes’ Cemetery and have Duterte help her realize that dream —that and then to see the consequences of the Duterte regime —that was the end of the story for me.
How did you verify whether the information she relates to you are indeed facts?
In the film she says what she thinks and she tells her story, and then other people tell stories from their point of view that often contradict what she says. It’s really up to the viewer to make their mind up about the story.
But I will say that the people in the film, the survivors of human rights abuses —Etta Rosales, Pete Lacaba— they’re telling their own stories and when we hear them, there’s so much authenticity and emotion and stories that can be corroborated by the history books. And by other stories of survivors —and we interviewed many more that don't appear in the film— that the truth of those stories really start to puncture the myth making of the Marcoses.
In the beginning, the untruth Imelda starts with are kinda of maybe inconsequential or humorous. Like she says she has a wonderful marriage and then we hear from a friend at the time about the affairs. When she made Calauit, Island, she said that there were no people there except for a few who I could tell them what to do, but we learn that there are 254 families that were kicked off the island to make room for the animals.
By the time she says Martial Law was a great time for the Philippines, a time of sovereignty, a time of freedom, of human rights —not only have we we learned that maybe her stories are not the truth, but we are also hearing these very, very compelling first-person accounts by survivors of torture, we’re seeing archival footage that belies the words and it is up to the viewers to decide. We really scoured the archival footage and looked for the right points of view so that the viewers can have context to the Marcos story.
A lot of these events happened quickly, unannounced. How did you capture these? For example, the burial at Libingan ng mga Bayani happened without anybody knowing. Before anyone managed to really get there, he was already getting buried. How did you catch those moments?
I can’t really give away all of our trade secrets, but I will say that one of the people in this call was really key in capturing some of that footage, from the time of the burial. And having an amazing Filipino crew on the ground there allowed us to get coverage that we couldn’t always travel there for.
The other thing is we spent a huge amount of time there, way more than I planned for in the beginning. I ended up spending more than 100 days there, and part of it was because things were so unexpected: they were unfolding as it happened, the election was so fast.
The amazing thing about Philippine politics is that it’s very in the open. If you can run fast enough, you can capture it. It’s like in the US where there’s layers and layers and layers of security and access. In that way it’s very democratic. The politicians will come right out into the crowds and walk through the streets —it’s very open.
As films are, whether they are documentaries or fiction, the audience gleams different kinds of messages. But in terms of “The Kingmaker,” what did you want to say to us and who exactly were you talking to? Were you talking to Filipinos? To the international community? What were you saying?
When I started the film, I didn’t really know who was going it to be for. I tend to not think much about the audience. I feel like when you tell a great story, it finds its audience.
That said, Showtime, was the network for the film and that’s an American broadcaster. So I was thinking really for the international audience, particularly Americans. That was kinda of when I began.
…As a foreigner, this was a humbling experience to make a film in the Philippines. I wasn’t expecting to necessarily have people learn from it, from the Philippines. In a way most of what’s in the film is Filipino history. I didn’t presume to bring anything new. And yet one of the things that’s been so exciting, and probably the most moving part of this experience is hearing from both Filipino-Americans and people in the Philippines that the film is actually useful.
We had a premiere there and it was a very emotional screening. Of course I was nervous for the reaction but I was so pleased over how moved people were in the Q&A.
There were tears, people were talking about how they were grateful for the film for their children, that children as we see in the film don’t know all of the history, especially around Martial Law and they thought the film could be useful for that.
As the credits started the role there was spontaneous chat of “Never Again,” which was unexpected. And since then we’ve just had incredible response where there’s been a lot of requests to use the film educationally, to have it be screened in schools.
As a documentary filmmaker, that’s really where the rubber meets the road is how the people depicted in the film and from the Philippines, if it resonates with them, that has been very meaningful for me.
What did you want to say?
The lessons that I learned from the film and what I felt the message was in the end was really about the fragility of democracy. And when former President Aquino quotes George Santayana, “If you don’t remember the past, you’re condemned to repeat it.” That was such a haunting part of the story for me, to hear all of the accounts of Martial Law and the stories of the survivors of torture who thought that it was finished in 1986, who thought that that was just a part of their past and everybody could move on —to think how quick everything happened, in 2014 to 2015, people that I interviewed never thought the Marcoses would be in power. So I think it’s a cautionary tale for us. in the US, as we see our democratic institutions challenged and weakened on a daily basis.
You’re right for years, for decades Filipinos have been shouting, “Never Again, Never Forget,” and yet somehow we’ve ended up many members of the Marcos family in high positions of government. How “The Kingmaker” —
—It’s also a story of consequences and inequality. We talk about that here but it’s so powerful with the extremes in the Philippines. The consequence of inequality ended up being the persistence of political dynasties. And that the money that the Marcoses had allowed them to come back into power —so it’s also a story about political dynasties that certainly reverberates outside the borders of the Philippines.
“The Kingmaker” is available via Vimeo and Apple TV.