“I love like a mother,” insists Imelda Marcos: once Miss Manila candidate, dictator Marco’s wife, now lifetime Filipino politician, keen on “improving the country” whilst maintaining her closet of a thousand-plus luxury shoes. Clearly, Imelda’s standing in Philippine history is contentious. To some, she is an altruistic caretaker of the state, and to others, a living legacy of national theft. Lauren Greenfield revisits Imelda’s impact in documentary THE KINGMAKER, suggesting gently that perhaps this long-time matriarch should give politics a rest. In a tale of the narrative inconsistencies, Greenfield frames Imelda like Disney’s Mother Gothel: a seemingly maternal figure keen on taking over and exploiting her child’s resources for her own vain needs. THE KINGMAKER lays bare contemporary discrepancies of Imelda’s past and suggests a more sinister side to the Marcos regime than she lets on.
THE KINGMAKER opens up with a glitzy, polished image of Imelda in her humble Manila home: a modest flat decked out with Old Masters, gilded furniture, and paperweights of solid gold. Imelda is in her element; with well-fitted, but flamboyantly decorated dresses, the now ninety-year-old fits into her glamorous backdrop. From the get-go, her position already seems a tad ironic. Her lavish lifestyle, she claims, is a testament to her own love for the Filipino people. After “bringing peace” to the Philippines under martial law, she will do it again “for the Filipino people” in her son’s own political campaign towards vice presidency.
When the camera leaves Imelda’s apartment, however, her charismatic convictions start to fall apart at the seams. Imelda’s starry-eyed description of her wild menagerie in the “people-less” island of Calauite cuts into the raw bitterness of Calauite’s displaced. Her “Bridge of Love” inspires a whole new form of torture for political rebels. And perhaps – most distressingly – as her past trickles down into her political present, her innocence is tainted by her explicit support of Rodrigo Rua Duterete: long-time family friend, current “president,” and shameless instigator of the bloody Philippine Drug War.
As an amalgamation of disturbing truths, THE KINGMAKER is by no means a ‘beautiful’ documentary; indeed, it almost feels like a narrated archive with no end. Filled with only archival footage, newsprints, and the repeated interview here and there, THE KINGMAKER feels less like a theatrical release and more like a high school class project. Its depth of research is clear; so too, however, is its clear intent to reshape the past. THE KINGMAKER, after all, does not simply uncover a new past from never-seen-before footage. Rather, it re-appropriates visuals Imelda resonates with, bestowing them instead with new meaning for its own aims. While this revisionist history is encouraging to some degree, it is at the same time the slightest bit disturbing for its ease in changing the tracks of history.
The editing only contributes to Greenfield’s new-and-improved retelling. The events unfold organically, cross-referencing Imelda’s fanciful whims with their dire consequences. Stories start to meld together as the film’s timeline creeps towards the present, suggesting the cyclical return of the Marcos regime. Imelda’s insidious vanities are clear: for all of her lighthearted views of “motherhood,” Greenfield’s montage of counter-evidence cuts through. The critique grows more and more heavy-handed, eventually replacing Imelda’s screen time with more interviews of the politically oppressed. By the end, THE KINGMAKER practically devolves into a conspiracy theory, begging the viewer to recognize the terrors of Imelda’s carefully-orchestrated corruption.
But for all of THE KINGMAKER’s informational value, the film is still a narrative of a foreigner looking in. While the film records most of its reviews in English – one of the two official languages of the Philippines – the use of captions is quite frankly insulting. If someone’s words are even the slightest bit garbled by tears or accent, Greenfield slaps on subtitles. Even Imelda – the protagonist of the film, well-travelled intellectual, and clearly someone with years of diplomatic experience – cannot escape Greenfield’s brutal labelling scheme. The very insistence on English for most interviews, too, feels like less a reflection of the population than a circle-jerk of the same interviewees on repeat. The film’s politique – while well-intended – thus begs important questions. Why couldn’t the film interview more people? Why did Greenfield choose to subtitle totally-fine English? How hard was Greenfield – as a non-Filipina – trying to appeal to a Western audience, as an obtrusive way to “shed light” on a struggling democracy? For all of the film’s emphasis on empowering the Philippines, THE KINGMAKER seems too keen to lick the shoes of the Western viewer through its dealings of language alone.
Most dishearteningly, THE KINGMAKER remains just as it is: a self-contained documentary. In its down-to-earth revisitation of the Philippines under the Marcoses, the film offers little solution to the possibility that a non-Marcos-influenced Philippines can even exist. The film ends with nihilistic tones, in which its censored interviewees resign to the fate of the Marcos-Duterte alliance. Maybe Imelda was right. Perhaps the Philippines does need a star at the end of the darkness or even the slightest glimmer of hope, especially with dark times waiting ahead.