The Kingmaker

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Lauren Greenfield’s new documentary is called The Kingmaker but it looks at first glance like nothing more than a film about a woman whose days in the sun are long behind her.

Greenfield you may remember as the director of The Queen of Versailles, a film about a trophy wife of a very rarefied sort. Imelda Marcos, subject of The Kingmaker, you might remember as another trophy wife, of Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos. She of 3,000 pairs of shoes.

Watching it I was reminded of Errol Morris’s 2013 documentary about Donald Rumsfeld, The Unknown Known, in which Morris managed to lay not a single glove on the old fox, who had absolutely no need to do the interview and seemed to be engaging with Morris in a spirit of catch-me-if-you-can.

Marcos, on the other hand, does have skin in the game. But Greenfield structures her film so as only to reveal gradually what’s afoot, and why she’s called it The Kingmaker.

First up, Imelda the beneficent. The once-exiled wife of the deposed Marcos now back in her home country and being feted wherever she goes. Handing out money to street children, ostentatiously visiting the embalmed body of her dead husband, housed mausoleum-style in a Lenin-alike glass case until the Philippines government agrees to his burial in the Heroes’ Cemetery.

Then Imelda the gracious, interviewed at home, worried in a touching way that her stomach is going to look big on camera, alluding in an aggrieved tone to the 3,000 pairs of shoes, adamant that the country was better off in the Marcos years – breathtakingly she talks of freedom, democracy and human rights –  and was never better than under the martial law that lasted for eight years, until the Marcoses were chased from the country by a genuine street revolution.

En route we learn of Imelda as her husband’s special envoy, meeting Mao and Nixon, Prince Charles and Hirohito, Gaddafi and Saddam. A great diplomat, a servant, the “mother of the country” in her own estimation.

Imelda at her dead husband's glass coffin
Imelda and the embalmed Ferdinand

And then we get to it – Imelda the dynast. We’re introduced to the next generation of Marcos hopefuls in the shape of Imelda’s son, Ferdinand Jr, who goes by the name of Bongbong and is standing for the vice-presidency in the 2016 election, the presidency having been ruled out on strategic grounds. Slowly slowly, Imelda seems to suggest, her eye fixed on the Malacañan Palace.

Up to here the film has looked like a walk down a rosy memory lane with a woman capable of self-delusion on a grand scale, a real-life Norma Desmond bemoaning the smallness of politics since she and Ferdinand took their final bow.

Before it changes into something completely different, there’s a little refresher course on the last days of the Marcos regime, the rise of the challenger Benigno Aquino, his assassination, the rise of his widow, Corey Aquino, and the subsequent presidential election which Ferdinand Marcos claimed to have won and which led to him and Imelda being chased out of the country in 1986.

There’s enough on the billions of embezzled dollars now hidden around the world, and the routine torture and killings under Marcos for the continuing support of the Marcos name – particularly in the shanty towns – to be mystifying. Or it would have been if we hadn’t seen worldwide the odd alliance of the dispossessed with “populist” leaders. “Perception is real and truth is not,” Imelda says, à propos something else, but answering in a soundbite how come corruption and the loss of the rule of law can command so much support – people love a show.

From here fast-forward to 2016, the election contest, hotly fought between Bongbong (whose heart seems only to be half in it) and Leni Robredo. Meanwhile, in the foreground politically but so far in the background of Greenfield’s film as to be invisible is the presidential election, which sees Rodrigo Duterte elected.

Without wishing to spoil the entire narrative push of the film, Duterte has been kept deliberately at the back for dramatic effect. There are last minute reveals of an eye-opening sort, which say all you need to know about the role of mega-money in 21st-century politics, reveals that force a new appraisal of this old woman whose mask of sublime serenity never slips. Greenfield has handed Marcos and her family a rope, hoping, as in The Queen of Versailles, that her subjects will hang themselves with it. In fact it looks like they might be using it to help them haul themselves ashore.

The Kingmaker – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

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