MANILA — Lauren Greenfield had long been exploring the themes of wealth, consumerism, and materialism as a photographer and filmmaker when she came across an article about Calauit Island in the Philippines.
The tropical island, the unlikely home of African wildlife like giraffe and zebra, would seem far removed from Greenfield’s usual topics — but it was, in the most “egregious ways.”
For one, Calauit became a safari park on the whim of former First Lady Imelda Marcos, whom Greenfield had long been eyeing as her documentary subject.
The wife of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, she said, “has always been an iconic reference in my work” because of her infamous collection of 3,000 pairs of shoes.
“But what really captured my imagination was this island of Calauit,” she shared, via Skype, to the first Filipino audience of what would become “The Kingmaker,” during its local premiere at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) on January 29.
“It was a really little-known legacy. I thought, compared to the shoes, they were nothing compared to this island of extravagance. In some ways, it was the most egregious extravagance because it involved living things, these animals, and also the indigenous people who were depopulated, kicked off the island to make room for this safari,” she said.
As seen in “The Kingmaker,” the animals that were transported and then left to live with little to no expert supervision ended up having “four generations of inbreeding,” resulting in various conditions detrimental to them.
“For me, it was a symbolic story of the long-term consequences of wealth and power, and how an impulsive decision can lead to decades of damage,” Greenfield said.
The article about Calauit Island — written by William Mellor, who would become the producer of “The Kingmaker” — was the “starting point” of finally pursuing Imelda for the documentary, Greenfield recalled.
What started as a project which she thought would merely “go back into history,” took on a life of its own over the five years it was in production since 2014. No longer was it just about the Imelda’s excesses — it became a “cautionary tale” about truth and power.
During the course of the filming, Imelda’s son, Bongbong Marcos, ran for vice-presidency in the 2016 elections. While Greenfield’s team did shoot parts of Bongbong’s bid, she initially did not think it would figure significantly in the documentary.
“As his campaign picked up steam, and as he became the frontrunner, my focus shifted to following the election, following the money also, considering how this could have happened. And the story really took on a different direction,” she said.
That is evident in the latter part of “The Kingmaker,” where, after depictions of the ruthless Martial Law era, the Marcoses are shown trying to reclaim their political power — from Bongbong’s candidacy to the controversial burial of Ferdinand Marcos at the Libingan ng mga Bayani, and their alleged ties with President Rodrigo Duterte.
Through all these, Imelda is seen not as a spectator of her children’s efforts to restore the Marcos name, but as a cunning orchestrator of burying the truth about their ill-gotten wealth, and the deaths and disappearances during the dictator’s rule.
In a damning moment in the film, Imelda says, with unsettling certainty: “Perception is real, and the truth is not.”
“In the beginning, I thought maybe this would even be a redemption story for her,” Greenfield said. “She was 84 when we began. Looking back on her life, she could have had the opportunity to distance herself from what happened and start anew. Actually, it was the opposite. She was leading into the story of what happened, of this false narrative about those being the best times in the Philippines.”
“I realized — because I did a lot of research, and read a lot, too — she was an incredibly unreliable narrator, and that the truth was under assault in a lot of these stories… In fact many of her stories opposed historical accounts, first-person testimonies, and eye witnesses,” she added.
There then came another evolution of the documentary: the inclusion of other voices. Aside from Martial Law victims Etta Rosales, May Rodriguez, and Pete Lacaba, also interviewed in the film were former Presidential Commission on Good Government head Andy Bautista, former President Benigno Aquino III, and Vice President Leni Robredo.
Comprehensive footage, showing the Marcos regime as well as the 1986 uprising that overthrew the dictatorship, also provided a “counter-narrative to this false narrative that was being put forward,” Greenfield said.
But even without those opposing accounts, Imelda, in apparent unguarded moments, would say incriminating words which Greenfield found “jaw-dropping.”
Describing her interviews with Imelda, Greenfield said they were a “mixture of stories she’s told before and lines that you can read in other papers and other accounts — and these spontaneous admissions where she is just so truthful.”
In a part of “The Kingmaker” where Imelda recounted her family fleeing the 1986 revolution, for instance, she said she put “diamonds in diapers” that would “save us later on to pay the lawyers.”
And then in a moment that drew gasps and laughter from the CCP audience, Imelda candidly mentioned having money across 170 banks overseas.
“I spoke with Andy Bautista, and he had been investigating the ill-gotten wealth for years, and he didn’t know about the banks,” Greenfield told the audience after the screening.
Imelda’s openness to the point of being self-incriminating, Greenfield surmised, had something to do with the timing of the documentary’s production.
“When we began in 2014, in a way the stakes were much lower than they became. They were kind of sidelined at that point. President Aquino was the president for most of the time that I was filming,” she said.
“I think that she was really looking at what her legacy was going to be, and wanting to tell a different story than what international community knew from 1986,” Greenfield said.
As Bongbong sought the vice-presidency, Imelda, it seemed to Greenfield, had been counting on a “comeback story,” too.
But that did not happen, as Bongbong lost to Robredo.
At that point, Greenfield revealed a shift in the “incredible access” she had to Imelda, her family, and her activities. “Certainly, towards the end, after Bongbong Marcos did not win and then lodged the electoral protest, the access became more difficult,” she said.
Asked whether the Marcoses have seen the final version of “The Kingmaker,” Greenfield answered: “This is the first time that we’ve shown this in the Philippines, and we did invite Mrs. Marcos and Bongbong Marcos tonight.”
Scanning the audience through the video call, Greenfield quipped, in jest, “I don’t know if they’re there.”
Turning serious, she said, “No, we’ve not received any response.”