Documentary centering on the controversial political career of Imelda Marcos, the former first lady of the Philippines whose behind-the-scenes influence of her husband Ferdinand’s presidency rocketed her to the global political stage.
Director: Lauren Greenfield
Writer: Lauren Greenfield
Star: Imelda Marcos
Musanna Ahmed: Lauren Greenfield and subjects of wealth and excess – name a better duo.
After the flawed-but-engaging Generation Wealth, the documentarian raises the bar she set for herself with The Queen of Versailles with another juicy and disturbing portrait of corrupted wealth, this time centred on the controversial former first lady of the Philippines, Imelda Marcos. An urgent story of political puppet mastery makes for the filmmakers greatest work yet, working with a subject who perfectly complements her strengths and interests.
London Film Festival 2019, Days 6-7: Under the Radar Gems and DisappointmentsThe Kingmaker (2019) – source: BFI LFF
Husband Ferdinand Marcos governed the country as a dictator, enforcing martial law via brutal tactics, resulting in 70000 imprisoned, 34000 tortured and over 3000 documented deaths. Imelda, on the other hand, bathed in the excess granted by the lifestyle of being the First Lady, and confesses to the lens that she misses the clout of that status.
Her memories of her husband’s rule are marked by glamorous state visits and opportunities to splurge her lavish wealth on big construction projects infamously described as her “edifice complex”, like the San Juanico bridge and the Calauit Safari Park, for which 250 families were displaced to make space. Early on, footage shows her visiting a slum and pitifully handing out ₱1000 notes, solving a problem the only way she knows how – to throw money at it.
Except the amount given back to the people is infinitesimal to the amount she possesses, as she and her husband are widely believed to have amassed a multi-billion US dollar fortune through racketeering during their presidency, destroying the nation’s economy in the process. In addition to exploring that period in Filipino history through Imelda’s shonky perspective, the director records Imelda’s life here and now, chiefly by exploring the Vice Presidency campaign of her son Bongbong Marcos.
Here’s where The Kingmaker scarily transitions from conventional history doc to a critical history-in-the-making, capturing a dark time in Philippines democracy as Bongbong undermines his opponent Leni Robredo with the back-alley assistance of depraved President Duterte. The ill-gotten family wealth, that Bongbong claims he can’t account for, evidences its present-day existence in distressing ways that ought to warn the Philippines of its political future.
Greenfield peeks down that alley in a neat sleight of hand to her subject, whose sit-down interview is a hilarious and horrifying exhibition of zero self-awareness. “They didn’t find skeletons but they found beautiful shoes”, Imelda says about the crowds that poured into her closet during the People Power Revolution and found her 1220 pairs. Her plea for innocence involves sharing that Mao Zedong once told her she was bringing an end to the Cold War.
For this central interview, the mise-en-scene sizzles with absurd riches, unofficially putting the budget of the documentary in the multi-millions, extravagant enough to inspire the production designers of Succession on how to up the satirical ante. There are gold-framed Picassos, gold framed chairs, gold framed everything. Greenfield just has to set her camera down and ensure the lighting is good, whilst her subject has taken care of the rest for the recording.
As defined by her previous work, there’s a one-of-a-kind ability that Greenfield possesses of mixing tact with schadenfreude in the treatment of her subjects. In The Kingmaker, she strikes us with it again.
– Alistair Ryder, Film Inquiry