Early in Lauren Greenfield’s new documentary about Imelda Marcos, The Kingmaker, there’s a photo of the disgraced former First Lady of the Philippines mingling with one of the many beautiful people in her orbit at the time: Donald and Ivanka Trump. This is our cue that the story of the Iron Butterfly remains relevant decades after she and her husband Ferdinand packed their diamonds into a bunch of diapers and fled the Philippines amidst the People Power Revolution.
If you haven’t kept up with Imelda since her 1,000-plus shoes— allegedly bought with billions of dollars of pilfered funds— became a running punchline, then you might be surprised to hear that, until her term ended this year, she was back in power as a Filipino congresswoman.
Before Greenfield began working on the documentary, she didn’t realize that herself. “Even though [Marcos] is so well known, most people don’t know post 1986,” the filmmaker said during a Q&A following the documentary’s New York premiere at the Hamptons International Film Festival.
Greenfield had originally planned to focus on the wildlife preserve that the Marcoses established on Calauit in 1977, when they cleared the Philippine island of some 254 families so that 104 wild animals, captured in Africa, could roam free there. (Their son Bongbong was known to hunt wild boar there, which is where the Trump similarities begin.)
“I was blown away by this ultimate extravagance,” said Greenfield, who, as the director of The Queen of Versailles, is no stranger to extravagance. She found the island “symbolic of this kind of recklessness and unintended tragic implications, or consequences, of wealth and power.”
In pursuit of the Calauit angle, Greenfield interviewed the trapper who captured the animals, as well as displaced residents of the island, who returned there after Marcos’s downfall and must now fend inbred giraffes away from their crops. But the scope of the film began expanding as Bongbong, egged on by his mom, announced in October of 2015 that he would run for the vice presidency.
“When I began, Bongbong hadn’t declared,” said Greenfield. “And even when he declared no one thought he had a chance in hell of getting any votes.”
But like a certain other underestimated candidate, Bongbong started surging. Greenfield saw an opportunity to examine “the return to authoritarian regimes that we’re seeing all around the world.”
If Bongbong had a chance in hell, it was clearly because his mother is still beloved by many Filipinos. As she’s chauffeured through Manila, she regally distributes money to street children mobbing her car. Later, in a hospital built at her behest during her time as First Lady, she does the same with cancer-stricken children, morosely pulling bills out of her Ferragamo purse for the photo op while barely saying a word to the children.
If this reminds us of a certain someone throwing paper towels at Puerto Ricans, Marcos is clearly Trumpian in her steadfast determination to flip the popular narrative and convince everyone that she’s the Greatest. “I think she was interested in telling her story as she saw it,” said Greenfield when asked why Marcos agreed to participate in the documentary. “I think she feels wronged by the 1986 impression of her, or the shoes impression of her.”
Here, Marcos presents herself as a stateswoman who charmed the likes of Saddam Hussein and Chairman Mao. She recalls going into meetings with them with a (Trumpian) naïveté and promoting peace by asking them simply, “What’s your problem?” She says she was “generous” to Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, the political opponent who was arrested during martial law and who spent over seven years in jail, and denies that she had anything to do with his murder. “I had nothing against him, except that he talked too much, anyway.”
Sitting on absurdly gilded furniture (sound familiar?), Marcos shows off a Picasso and a Michelangelo, not seeming to care that authorities have been trying to track down the paintings allegedly purchased with plundered state funds. Marcos shows off an entire room piled high with thousands of documents pertaining to the lawsuits against her, offering it as proof of her victimhood rather than evidence of her criminality. She describes the period of martial law— during which there were an estimated 3,200 extrajudicial killings, 34,000 instances of torture, and 70,000 arrests, including those of journalists— as a time of “sovereignty, freedom, rights.” (Dissidents who tell Greenfield about their torture, rape, and imprisonment remember it differently.) She justifies her extravagance— and the fact that she dresses extra exorbitantly for shantytown visits— by saying “the poor always look for a star in the dark of the night.”
Marcos said something similar in Ramona S. Diaz’s 2003 documentary, Imelda. Other stories, such as the one about her time in a New York psych ward, were also told in that earlier, more sympathetic documentary. What makes Kingmaker different, of course, is Bongbong’s run for vice president.
As a candidate, Bongbong relies heavily on appearances from his mother, who cracks jokes about the shoes, and he has his own version of the “Make America Great” speech; from the stump, he recalls a time when people were proud to be Filipinos. (He doesn’t mention the massive Communist uprising that occurred during this supposedly “more prosperous” era.)
As Bongbong vied for the vice presidency, Duterte was running for president. At the time, Greenfield couldn’t imagine the two strongmen winning. Filipinos, she said, “were such a democracy-loving people and in some ways their democracy was very much inspired by ours. And [there were so many] constitutional changes after their experience with dictatorship, with Marcos, that it was unfathomable to the people there that it could happen.”
Though Bongbong didn’t end up winning, Duterte did, in an election that proved ominous. “I remember telling our Filipino crew in Manila that it wasn’t going to happen to us,” said Greenfield. “And the next time we went, Trump was our president.”
As with the Trump election, Duterte’s was extremely shady, involving Facebook chicanery and Duterte’s public confession that Imelda’s daughter Imee Marcos, also a congresswoman at the time, made massive campaign contributions. (Imee played it off as one of Duterte’s knee-slappers, but Duterte seemed to be returning the favor when he allowed the burial of Ferdinand Marcos, which had been forbidden by previous administrations.)
Greenfield said the Philippine election mirrored the 2016 election in “so many of the issues, from the Supreme Court [which will soon be stocked with Duterte loyalists], to the money in elections, to fake news… There were so many parallels. Even when Imelda talks about all of the wonderful heads of state friends of hers— like Chairman Mao, Saddam Hussein, Qaddafi— we can relate to that special bond that authoritarian leaders have with each other.”
Given that she’s presented in such an unappetizing, unrepentant light, you have to wonder what Marcos will make of the film. To Greenfield’s knowledge, she hasn’t yet seen it. “The trailer has come out and gone viral in the Philippines and there’s a lot of interest there in seeing it, but nobody has seen it there yet.”
Of course, there’s a good chance Marcos isn’t worried about the documentary, which could easily be dismissed as fake news. As she says in the film, “Perception is real and the truth is not.”
“The Kingmaker” will play at DOC NYC on Nov. 6 and 7.