Maverick Life


This weekend we’re watching: Imelda Marcos, the pageant queen who ravaged a nation

This weekend we’re watching: Imelda Marcos, the pageant queen who ravaged a nation
'The Kingmaker' by Lauren Greenfield (Image supplied -Showtime Documentary Films)

We take a sneak peek at one of the astonishing films bound to make a splash at the Virtual Encounters Documentary Festival next week: ‘The Kingmaker’ – a shocking digest of the crimes of the Marcos dynasty and the threat of their return to power in the Philippines.

The Kingmaker

Imelda Marcos stares at the world with dead eyes. Such acute disinterest is only possible of an individual who – through pampering, delusion and sheer force of vanity – has come to believe that bestowed upon them is the divine right to rule.

Imelda was the first lady of the Philippines for two decades, but she was much more than that. She was more like a tyrannical empress, with diamond shoes and iron fists; her house is awash with paintings depicting her as a goddess, a noble matriarch heading a family of deities.

In The Kingmaker, she is seen with a permanently pained expression, as if one more minute spent among the commoners of Earth might cause her to vomit; she speaks in whimpers, always a moment away from melting into a bubbling broth of tears and self-pity.

With a grimace, she calmly hands out literal wads of her allegedly stolen money to strangers, causing stampedes wherever she goes. She raises her eyebrows at the squalor disapprovingly. Such a shame …

There was once a time when the 86-year-old Filipino “Cruella de Vil” was quite beautiful. The former “Miss Manila” courted several politicians before she met Ferdinand Marcos, but when she did, he proposed on the spot, literally within minutes of meeting her. Their marriage was a strategic alliance between an ambitious “manly” candidate from the north and a beauty from humble beginnings in the south; a celebrity coupling which inspired admiration from the people. They would sing duets in front of the cameras, dressed to the teeth. It wasn’t long before the people were singing their tune as well.

Ferdinand Marcos ruled as the dictator of the Philippines for 21 years (1965-1986). According to many accounts, his reign was brutal. In 1972, under the guise of saving the Philippines from communism, he imposed martial law upon the whole country. 14 of the country’s 15 newspapers were closed. The Kingmaker features inspiring and mortifying accounts of insurgents tortured under his command.

Ferdinand could not leave the Philippines for fear there would be a coup, so Imelda became the surrogate president abroad. She consorted with the likes of Fidel Castro, Saddam Hussein, Chairman Mao, and of course, now US President Donald Trump. “Gaddafi was a friend,” she says.

Eventually the coup arrived and the Marcoses fled to America to be replaced by a peacenik, but by that time, the damage was done. Thousands murdered, tens of thousands tortured and billions upon billions of dollars stolen. Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos hold the Guinness World Record for the most money ever stolen from a government.

As well as buying 3,000 designer shoes and an obsession with erecting buildings (a condition later dubbed in the Philippines as her Edifice complex), Imelda fell prey to the classic fascination of corrupt egomaniacs – exotic animals. The Marcoses bribed the president of Kenya to allow them to ship off a bunch of large African mammals to a private uninhabited island in the Philippines called Calauit. Except it wasn’t uninhabited – in 1976, they actually evicted 254 families from their homes to make room for their menagerie. Escobar would have been proud. When the Marcoses were finally toppled, the islanders returned to their homes and the animals were abandoned, creating the current absurd situation in which local Filipino fisherman and farmers are living on an island alongside feral zebras and in-bred short-necked giraffes.

Equally as shocking as her excessive spending is Imelda’s shameless defence of her opulence to this day. “I was always criticised for being excessive, but that is the spirit of mothering.”

The Kingmaker provides insight into the mechanisms of narcissism. Imelda so thoroughly surrounded herself with sycophants that she bought into her own propaganda. “It was God’s plan to make me born in the Philippines. Nobody can stop me.”

Despite Imelda’s being the notorious antagonist of the film, for the most part, it is her voice that narrates it. Director Lauren Greenfield’s choice to allow Imelda to tell her own story, while juxtaposing it with incriminating footage and scattering contrary perspectives amid Imelda’s delusional perspective, exposes her falsity in an organic and entertaining way which would never have been possible without including her as an interviewee. How Greenfield convinced Imelda to be so intimately interviewed is a mystery.

It is important that people see The Kingmaker, and understand how Imelda is equally dangerous if not more dangerous than her notorious late kleptocratic husband. As Imelda herself puts aptly: “The gun can kill you only up until the grave, but the media can kill you beyond the grave into infinity.”

Mind-blowingly, when Imelda returned from exile, she was allowed to resuscitate her political career. Imelda has been pressuring her son Bong Bong to run for office since he was 8, and in 2016, he did, towing the same line as Trump (make Philippines great again).

Shortly after the inauguration of the current president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, it became clear that his campaign had been funded by the Marcoses. Duterte turned out to be the son of a former member of Ferdinand Marcos’ cabinet. It wasn’t long before the Marcoses were set loose again, and just like the feral inbred giraffes marooned on Calauit, the political inbreeding had begun. With Duterte’s support, Imelda’s daughter, Imee Marcos won a senate seat, and she, in turn, hustled her son into the governor’s seat. The film ends with terrifying signs of the Marcos dynasty’s imminent return to power.

The Kingmaker is a bizarre and informative synopsis of the real life Filipino Game of Thrones of the recent past; it’s an exposé on the current carnage under Duterte, who compares himself to Hitler and intends to match him in killings: “Hitler massacred 3 million Jews … there’s 3 million drug addicts. I’d be happy to slaughter them.”

And it’s a warning of the Orwellian future which the Marcoses might seek to unleash should they see the gap. With the aid of abundant colourful footage and Greenfield’s trained eye for the aesthetic, as a fine arts photographer, it is visually engaging, over and above being an important and intellectually absorbing watch. DM/ML

The Kingmaker will be screened at the 2020 Virtual Encounters South African International Documentary Festival which takes place between 20 and 30 August 2020.

Found a little-known gem of a film which you absolutely love? Send a recommendation to [email protected]


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