Film Review: The Kingmaker (2019)

In what is one of the sharpest and most lucid moments of The Kingmaker (2019), former Filipino First Lady and shoe collector extraordinaire Imelda Marcos states, “Perception is real, and the truth is not.” Keep this quote in mind, for we’ll return to it later.

Lauren Greenfield’s latest hard-hitting documentary centres around the near-mythical figure of Imelda Marcos in two acts. The first act chronicles her rise to power and reign as First Lady for 21 years until she and her husband, Ferdinand Marcos, were deposed by the 1986 People Power Revolution. The second captures her return to political prominence, including her plans to propel her only son Bongbong Marcos to the Vice Presidency of the Philippines. 

In what The New York Times calls a “dialectic” approach, Imelda is at first allowed to present a seamless albeit polished version of events. This lends her retelling a sliver of credence, particularly to audience members who, like me, are outsiders to Filipino politics. But cracks in her narrative begin to appear as soon as alternative voices chime in.

One of the earliest instances is the clear divergence between accounts of how the Calauit Safari Park came to be. In 1976, Imelda imported an extravagant array of African wildlife to create her own private zoo but without due consideration for where to house the giraffes, zebras, impalas, water bucks, and a hundred other creatures. Present-day Imelda describes their final destination matter-of-factly: “It was an island that (...) did not have communities there.” Greenfield then cuts to a shot of Remedios Tradio, one member of the 254 families forcefully evicted from Calauit to make room for the safari park, which today lies in ruins. And thus, audiences are allowed to draw their own conclusions.

Greenfield’s edit comprises interviews assembled from various figures—ranging not only from members of the Marcos family, but also to political rivals Benigno Aquino III and Leni Robredo, as well as close friends, former aides and victims of the Marcos regime—that are arranged masterfully together to present as far-reaching a recollection of the Filipino experience as possible. Consequently, Imelda’s sanitised narrative, in which she and her family are victims of a decades-long smear campaign and a ruthless government’s attempt to seize what rightfully belongs to the Marcoses, is completely dismantled and brought crashing to the ground.

The dialectic spans multiple pain points in the history of the Philippines: martial law, the assassination of Ninoy Aquino, the arduous operations of the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG), and the election of Rodrigo Duterte in the 2016 Presidential Elections. Yet, Imelda has no qualms rewriting her personal and political history. While some might decry her as being delusional, there are three moments in which the crystallisation of her narrative reveals itself to be starkly self-aware and shrewdly crafted.

The first is during the press interview at her birthday party. Without giving too much away, it is clear that her opening line—which reinforces the same narrative she told us earlier in the documentary—is a well-rehearsed story. All of her autobiographical retellings begin the same way: that she was abandoned, or orphaned, as early as eight years old when her mother passed away. Thus she depicts her marriage to Ferdinand Marcos as something that had rescued her from her ‘abandonment’ (a quick check would debunk this), and argues that this early experience of loss had set the precedent for her approach to nation-building: “I was always criticised for being excessive. But that is mothering. That is the spirit of mothering. You cannot quantify love.” In rejecting her critics’ allegations that the Marcoses have looted too much from the people for their own personal expenditure, she explains away her actions as being intrinsic and unquantifiable, even if it means shelling out large sums of money for tangible possessions. In other words, one cannot blame Imelda for pursuing her deep-seated propensity for love, beauty and luxury if that’s all she excels in, and particularly if it also helps project a desirable image of her nation-baby.

And yet, despite Imelda’s acute recognition that the past is instrumental to the present, at one point she also asserts (while beaming knowingly), “There are so many things in the past that we should forget. In fact, it’s no longer there.” This is the second elucidating moment. To say on one hand, the past is I, and to erase history—and hence their sin of “ill-gotten wealth”—in the same breath suggests that Imelda is apt to supply her words according to the cause they serve. Sure, she may have made some mistakes in the past, but let bygones be bygones. Hence what stand to be matters of practicality and what should be swept under the rug is determined no less by the Marcos matriarch, who singlehandedly charts the country's course of political succession, her family at the helm. If she could, she would scrub clean the stench of her husband’s reign and sell the people a Ponzi scheme pipe dream-illusion that would spring her back into a position of great clout and influence.

Remember the quote at the beginning? A generous interpretation of the utterance would return us to another remark of hers. Once, Imelda explains that when she visits the slums, she takes care to look extra stunning: “The poor look for a star in the dark of the night.” And in a rather bizarre way, Imelda is right on this count. Some of her most avid fans perceive the curse of poverty that has befallen the country not as a result of the Marcoses siphoning away public funds for themselves during their two-decade dictatorship, but as a result of their being removed from the very seat of power that had enabled their corruption. If Imelda-as-First-Lady had stayed, then the star power of Imelda-as-symbol would inevitably have continued rubbing off on the country. These days we hear warnings about the dangers of personality politics as if they were being sounded off for the first time. In truth, personality politics has long tossed the hearts of the common people about.

But what is really outstanding about the line is that it's not just any double-edged sword—it is the most pivotal utterance in the documentary, as it instantly emblazons a trail of insight into her lifelong contrivances. Because perception is real, Imelda has spent her whole life plying a pretty picture of effortless beauty that belies her calamitous appetite. People see her and people cannot fight what they see. She cherry picks part of the truth to present to the public eye so as to build a perception that people find themselves helpless to challenge. In the end, because people see what they want to believe and believe what they want to see, why does it matter what the truth behind Imelda really is? And yet, while the line felicitously outlines her approach to her life in public, the line also inadvertently hurts her because The Kingmaker presents a version of the truth that isn’t able to portray her in a positive light. The perception that she has so carefully built up with years of rehearsed ease, a knowing smile, coquettish laughter—all of it topples over in the course of this documentary as more and more gritty voices pipe up to speak their own stinging truth.

One of the biggest criticisms about this documentary is that many anti-Marcos Filipinos are deeply puzzled as to why Imelda is being given a platform to air her views in the first place. This sentiment is not misplaced, given that this is a story she’s been peddling for years, sharpened to prick listeners’ hearts in all the right places. But one might remember that just because she is being spotlighted in this documentary doesn’t mean that she is being cast as a saviour and allowed to broadcast her views unchecked. After all, as Greenfield weaves in more and more contrarian voices whose complex stories cast immense doubt over Imelda’s victim narrative, any discerning audience member will gradually be able to piece the implications together for themselves. Truly, perception is real—and the truth is not.

Written by Eisabess Chee

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