Imelda Marcos documentary 'The Kingmaker' tells a story of 'power, dynasty and history repeating itself'

The story of the former First Lady of the Philippines has been brought to life by American director Lauren Greenfield

Philippines First Lady Imelda Marcos arrives at the Elysee Palace, on May 26, 1976, in Paris. AFP PHOTO (Photo by AFP)
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The first thing that comes to mind when many people think of Imelda Marcos is her shoes. For the former First Lady of the Philippines had an expansive collection – one that totalled around 3000 pairs.

It was 1986 when the public learned this about the glamorous Marcos, after an uprising against the rule of her husband, Ferdinand Marcos, led to the couple fleeing the country they had ruled for more than two decades.

But the media seemed less interested in the political turmoil as they were the sartorial one: broadcasting images of her expensively-stacked wardrobe, and her shoe collection, to the world.

This was supposed to symbolise how the Marcos regime misappropriated public funds for their personal benefit. However, all it really did was usher Marcos's fashion sense into the spotlight, rather than the destruction she and her husband had wrought over their country.

'The Kingmaker' shows Marcos trying to rebuild her political career

But a new documentary is set to rewrite even that narrative. The Kingmaker, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival over the weekend, moves the spotlight away from Marcos's wardrobe and towards her political career. 

American director Lauren Greenfield mentions the shoes, of course, but is more concerned with how the former First Lady is now trying to rewrite the history of her time in power. After all, it's another pivotal time for Marcos, given that she's trying to position her son, Bongbong Marcos, as a future leader the Philippines. It would be an impressive feat for sure, but perhaps no more impressive than the fact she was allowed to return to the Philippines in 1991 and later to re-enter politics.

Philippines' former first lady Imelda Marcos (L) waits for a release order from the graft court following her hearing at the graft court in Manila on November 16, 2018. (Photo by Ted ALJIBE / AFP)
Marcos is now trying to bring her son Bongbong to power. AFP.

Greenfield, understandably, was drawn to the story of the presidential couple by the outlandish tales of opulence. "I started out thinking the film would be about this icon of extravagance," she tells The National in Venice. "But then as I began filming, it started to be about power, dynasty and history repeating itself."

Greenfield has built her reputation, and won many awards, by directing films about money. Her last documentary was called Generation Wealth. But the director is perhaps best known for her 2012 film The Queen of Versailles, which detailed American socialite and beauty pageant director Jackie Siegel's bizarre attempt to build a replica of the French palace in America. So the theme of wealth and excess runs deep in Greenfield's oeuvre.

'She thought this film was about her legacy and wants to tell her story'

Greenfield approached Marcos in 2015, after reading an article in Vanity Fair about one of her family's lesser-known, but most bizarre, acts in power. In 1976, more than 1000 inhabitants of Calauit Island, in Palawan, Philippines, were expelled from their homes, so that exotic animals imported from Africa could roam freely, and the island was turned into a national park. Marcos had seen the animals on a trip to Kenya and felt compelled to find a sanctuary for them in her country. 

Marcos agreed to the interview almost immediately.

Imelda Marcos, wife of the President of the Philippines, with her son Ferdinand Jr, arriving at Claridge's Hotel, London, September 7th 1970. (Photo by Ian Showell/Keystone/Getty Images)
First lady Imelda Marcos with her son Ferdinand Jr, arriving at Claridge's Hotel, London, on September 7th, 1970. Getty Images. 

"I think she has been quite open to the press," says Greenfield. "When we started making the film, the Marcos family didn't have the political profile that they have now, so maybe the stakes were lower. She thought this film was about her legacy and wants to tell her story." 

The documentary starts with Marcos in the back of a luxurious car, opening her window and handing out wads of cash to child beggars. She then makes the first of many political statements, claiming that when she was in power, there were no beggars. In her mind, since being exiled, the Philippines has gone into free fall.

VENICE, ITALY - AUGUST 30:  Director Lauren Greenfield attends "The Kingmaker" photocall during the 76th Venice Film Festival at Sala Grande on August 30, 2019 in Venice, Italy. (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)
Director Lauren Greenfield at the Venice Film Festival for her film 'The Kingmaker' over the weekend. Getty Images.

For Greenfield, the story quickly moved on from being about the safari park, to centre around  the former First Lady's attempt to return the Marcos family name to front-line politics. The first step was a campaign to get Bongbong elected to the role of vice president.

History repeating itself? Marcos's son could be the next president

Greenfield is well aware how remarkable this political change of fortune would be: "It would be like if Nixon ran for office again. The very idea that somebody could not only redeem themselves but have political power again after they had been thrown out of the country and accused of stealing $10 billion."

To give a sense of the scale of the comeback, Greenfield rewinds the clock to when Marcos was a beauty queen and first met her future husband. His rise to power came soon after their marriage.

Ferdinand 'Bong-Bong' Marcos Jr. (C) and Imee Marcos (R), the children of the late Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos, are surrounded by reporters after viewing the remains of the late president Corazon Aquino during a visit to Manila Cathedral on August 4, 2009. Drawing on the Roman Catholic Asian nation's long tradition of setting aside rivalries on the occasion of death, House of Representatives member Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Junior and elder sister Imelda "Imee" Marcos surprised mourners with their afternoon visit at the Manila Cathedral wake. Aquino died on August 1 at age 76 after a long battle with cancer.   AFP PHOTO / POOL / ROLEX DELA PENA (Photo by ROLEX DELA PENA / POOL / AFP)
Ferdinand 'Bong-Bong' Marcos Jr, Marcos's son, is rumoured to be mulling over a run for president. AFP.

But trouble was brewing already. Once in office, fearing a coup attempt in his absence, the president sent his wife to meet world leaders around the world in his place. It was als a convenient excuse to get his wife out of the house while he had numerous affairs.

"His betrayal really hurt her," says Greenfield. "I think it shaped her. The way she was going to deal with it was that she was going to have whatever she wanted." 

That ethos seems to have continued in the latter stages of Marcos's life. The second half of the film is dedicated to showing the future of the family, focusing on Bongbong's political trajectory and his rumoured run for president in 2022. It uncovers the Marcos family's links to incumbent President Rodrigo Duterte and their financial donations to his campaigns. In return, Duterte allowed the body of Ferdinand Marcos to be laid to rest in the National Heroes' Cemetery in Manila.

Greenfield has made a powerful film about corruption and the cult of personality in The Kingmaker. But as much as it's a startling review of the past, it's also a warning of history repeating itself. 

As such, the director ends the film by showing the Calauit Island animals are suffering outside their natural habitat. But in all, it's not about them either. 

"The film is really about the fragility of democracy," Greenfield says.