When Imelda Marcos turned 90 in July, about 260 guests at her birthday party were hospitalized with food poisoning. The culprit was apparently some bad meat stew and eggs. The family issued an apology, though Marcos’ daughter Imee tried to put her own hilariously upbeat spin on the disaster: “The food may have been spoiled,” she declared, “but we remain solid.”
Indeed they do. The Marcos family’s continued solidarity and ceaseless determination are among the central concerns of “The Kingmaker,” Lauren Greenfield’s new documentary. The food-poisoning incident doesn’t come up, maybe because it happened too recently, or maybe because it was too obvious a metaphor. But your own stomach may churn long before the end of this concise, coolly infuriating portrait of Marcos, the former first lady of the Philippines who was admired for her beauty, known for her shoes and feared for her clout with her dictator husband, Ferdinand.
Ferdinand died in 1989, but Imelda lives, a figure of persistent controversy and still-impeccable style who, years after returning from exile in 1991, remains intent on restoring a fallen dynasty to power. That might seem a tall order, given the horrors associated with her husband’s regime: eight brutal years of martial law (1972-81); the theft of about $10 billion from the government treasury; and countless kidnappings, torturings and killings, including the 1983 assassination of political opponent Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. But one of the documentary’s most troubling themes is the persistence of historical amnesia, the ease with which people can be conditioned into viewing the traumas of the past through rose-tinted lenses.
“Perception is real, and the truth is not,” Marcos declares in one scene, and Greenfield, as if to prove that appalling point, gives “The Kingmaker” a coiled, time-shuffling structure that keeps the Marcos government’s worst abuses offscreen, at least initially. When we first meet Marcos on a 2014 visit to Manila, she is passing money through her car window to children in the street, frowning and clucking her tongue at the poverty she sees.
Her reaction seems both calculating and oblivious: It was never like this when she was in power, she insists. A moment later the vehicle passes by Malacañang Palace, and while she isn’t terribly fond of her former residence (“It was not really a very comfortable place to live”), she still muses about how much she misses those good old days.
One can imagine. Interviewed at home, where she is surrounded by attendants and a museum wing’s worth of gilt-framed paintings and bric-a-brac, Marcos recounts her early years and her marriage to Ferdinand. Brought to his attention after winning the 1953 Miss Manila beauty pageant, she was his wife within 11 days and first lady by 1965, when he became president. Despite her initial allergy to politics, she quickly embraced her role as glamour icon and figurehead, as we see in archival clips and photographs of her meeting with everyone from Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan to Moammar Kadafi, Mao Tse-tung and Saddam Hussein. (Much of this was covered in greater detail and with similar access in “Imelda,” a 2003 documentary from the Filipino American director Ramona Diaz.)
Marcos’ charming way with heads of state led many to see her as the true power behind the regime (the “Eva Peron of the Philippines,” in the words of Aquino, who had courted her years before). The irony, one interviewee notes, is that Ferdinand sent her on many of those diplomatic visits so as to keep her out of the way while he carried on one flagrant affair after another. Regardless, the two made a formidable pair, ideally matched in greed and ambition. Together they raided their country’s coffers and built for themselves a life of unparalleled, indefensible luxury.
That luxury finds a productively critical interpreter in Greenfield, a photographer and filmmaker with a practiced eye for opulence. Her earlier feature-length documentaries include “Generation Wealth” and “The Queen of Versailles,” a portrait of billionaire decadence and rococo vulgarity that would make a fine companion piece to this one. In both movies the director shows a knack for getting her subjects to hang themselves with their own wealth and their own words. (There’s a priceless slip of the tongue when Imelda means to say “mother” and instead says “money.”)
At the same time, Greenfield doesn’t linger too long on the familiar symbols of Marcos’ extravagance: the European designer dresses, the shelves upon shelves of high-heeled shoes, never to be worn more than once. The moral costs of the Marcos dynasty interest the filmmaker more. She keeps returning to one of their ghastliest excesses: their decision to uproot and import a menagerie of giraffes, zebras and other animals from Africa in the 1970s and set them loose on Calauit Island, displacing about 254 families in the process.
Today, the animals are alive but not well, due to years of isolation and inbreeding. That’s another potent metaphor for a family whose lust for power has already been passed down to the next generation. Much of the documentary is devoted to the 2016 vice presidential campaign of Marcos’ son, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. Although that bid failed, the landslide election of President Rodrigo Duterte, whose administration has its own atrocious record of mass murder and other human-rights abuses, suggests the continued appeal of strongmen on the geopolitical stage.
Greenfield’s most forceful interviews are not with Marcos, with her self-pitying laments and dubious recollections. Wisely, she interviews a number of activists who recount their experiences of being rounded up and tortured during the martial law years. Their testimonies are vivid, horrifying, galvanizing in their detail and lucidity. “The Kingmaker” may end on a queasy note of alarm about the Philippines’ future, but it also reminds us that we neglect the past at our peril.
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Rating: R, for some disturbing violent content
Playing: Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles