“Perception is real, and the truth is not,” announces Imelda Marcos in “The Kingmaker,” a jaw-dropping documentary in which director Lauren Greenfield exposes just how effective the wounded peacock has been in reshaping her status. Once world-famous for her shoe collection, Imelda benefited enormously from husband Ferdinand’s two-decade dictatorship over the of the Philippines, until being forced to flee to Hawaii in 1986. Now, back from exile, the disgraced former first lady is fully invested in reclaiming her family’s position atop a country whose coffers they once pillaged, attempting to bend democracy and boost her son, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., to power.
Marcos’ print-the-legend philosophy has particular resonance in a post-truth world, although such sinister undertones sneak up on audiences in a movie that begins, innocently enough, as the latest of Greenfield’s astonishing portraits of wealth run amok. Even as far away as the Philippines, the photographer can’t escape glaring reminders of American absurdity — as when the recent Filipino elections seem to echo the United States’ surreal 2016 presidential ballot, which pitted a former first lady against a populist plutocrat. Bizarrely, Marcos embodies both of those personae in a single public figure, and though the perception she’s creating is that of a magnanimous matriarch, Greenfield finds the truth (there’s that word) to be far more complicated.
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In light of the recurring themes of Greenfield’s oeuvre — decades spent documenting the lifestyles of the filthy rich and wannabe famous, à la “The Queen of Versailles” and “Generation Wealth” — it’s no wonder that Marcos would be amenable to being immortalized by such a high-profile photographer. What Greenfield’s subjects never seem to grasp is how her work manages to flatter them, captured in all their blinged-out excess, while striking outsiders as satirical and shocking. Certainly, Marcos is image-conscious enough to recognize that granting Greenfield such access could backfire in a big way. Still, her vanity and ambition get the better of her, resulting in the juiciest insider look at a corrupt world leader since Barbet Schroeder’s “General Idi Amin Dada: A Self Portrait.”
From the outset, Greenfield and editor Per K. Kirkegaard include shots of Imelda getting her makeup done, or asking, “How’s my tummy? Does it look big?” before sitting for one of the interviews in which she strategically attempts to reshape and control her own narrative. Of course, such candid details can give a false illusion of objectivity, though Greenfield doesn’t take her subject at face value, instead going the extra distance to interview her political detractors and supply the historical context the Marcos clan is actively trying to rewrite — the effects of which can be witnessed in elementary schools, where Ferdinand Marcos’ nearly decade-long period of martial law is now being recast as a rosier time than it was.
From Imelda’s POV, the Philippines have gone downhill since her family was in charge. “Before, during my time, there were no beggars,” she claims, happy to be filmed as she hands out crisp bank notes to street children and cancer patients. But where did this personal fortune she now shares come from? And how deep does such generosity really go? The Marcos family stands accused of looting anywhere from $5 billion to $10 billion from the country, and though many of their treasures were confiscated by the Presidential Commission on Good Government (an entity established by Marcos successor Corazon Aquino), they’ve stashed a number of valuable artworks that can be sold whenever they need an influx of cash.
Interweaving the photographer’s lurid, color-saturated look at Imelda today with archival footage, the stranger-than-fiction documentary reminds that small-town girl Imelda Trinidad Romualdez was whisked into this life after competing in the Miss Manila beauty pageant, which caught the attention of young politician Ferdinand Marcos. They married after an 11-day courtship, and though Imelda was instrumental in his political rise, the pressure was too much to bear, leading to a near breakdown.
Imelda speaks candidly of this time and the change of outlook that led her to embrace her position as the country’s most high-profile woman — a trophy wife whom Ferdinand sent around the world while he cheated on her back home. Greenfield includes one of the damning tapes, in which actress Dovie Beams recorded her affair with the president, and checks in with several of Imelda’s pet projects, including the so-called Bridge of Love and a whimsical wild-animal preserve that hinged on the eviction of Calauit Island’s human population. At the time of her “reign,” Imelda met many world leaders, among them Chairman Mao and Saddam Hussein, whom she claims to have asked point-blank, “What’s your problem?”
If only diplomacy were so simple. What does appear easy, perhaps even alarmingly so, is the path back to power. After a few years in exile — following the death of Ferdinand, who’d been quite ill during his final stretch in office — the Marcoses found it safe to return, eventually repatriating the dictator’s corpse. With her big hair and elegant dresses (we never glimpse the all-important shoes on her feet), Imelda may look the part of the sweet Marcos grandmother, but she can also play the tough “Narcos” godmother, pulling strings from behind the scenes.
Greenfield follows Marcos on the campaign trail for her latest scheme: to get her son Bongbong elected as vice president, which would clear the way for him to succeed the dastardly Rodrigo Duterte. This last chapter is the most chilling, as it finds a desperate country naive enough to believe the false narrative the Marcoses are selling — or buying, as the case seems to be. Meanwhile, Duterte appears to be a tool in their reascension; the new president’s already horrific legacy can be seen in a series of bloody street shootings, captured by local still photographers and Greenfield’s cameras.
In the end, “The Kingmaker” leaves it to audiences to untangle the veracity of Imelda’s own myth-building. But it’s impossible to ignore what the film says about the perils of political dynasties, which audiences have back in America as well, between the Kennedys, the Bushes, the Clintons and now the Trumps. Even those with the best intentions can be corrupted, leveraging their ambitious wives and idiot sons to reclaim the power they believe to be rightfully theirs.