Daniel Nelson 

'The Kingmaker' is a disturbing documentary about former Philippines First Lady Imelda Marcos – which argues that the former dictator ‘s family is inexorably positioning Ferdinand “BongBong” Marcos Jnr as the next president.

It argues that current President, Rodrigo Duterte – nicknamed Duterte Harry for his trigger-happy “war on drugs” – is a staging post for the dynastic manoeuvre.

Certainly, the film demonstrates the Marcos family’s all-encompassing sense of entitlement.

At one point Marcos Jnr steers the attention of an adulatory rally to his own son, as though he’s already lining up a third generation on the podium.

Imelda remains an enigma, but appears to be childlike, simple and cunning, a fearsome matriarch who manufactures her own fairytale reality, who talks of love, beauty and motherhood and does not give even a scintilla of acknowledgement to the realities of Marcosworld – such as violence, aggrandisement, nepotism, torture, revenge.

She aims to float through – or rather, above the political muck that surrounds her, seeing only benevolence in her family’s work and only malevolence in the words and actions of anyone not enthusiastically supportive.

The film traces her early years and suggests a key moment was her mother’s death when she was only eight, after which “I was always looking for someone to love me”; the moment Miss Manila was spotted by Congressman Ferdinand (“In the first 20 minutes he proposed marriage”); and an other alleged key moment when tapes of her husband’s dalliance with US starlet Dovie Beams became public (boosting his popularity among many Filipino men).

That betrayal, it is suggested in the film, changed her and gave her a hold over her husband. Political wives are always accused of being the power behind the throne (code for ruthless selfish harridans), but she certainly she had an “edifice complex”, indulged in big-scale shopping (“If she liked it she bought it”, even if it was a jewellery boutique), re-defined accusations of excess as mothering, and boasted of her ability to handle illustrious global leaders, such as Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gadaffi and Chairman Mao.

Now nearly 90, she moves grandly from one public event to another, constantly handing out small banknotes to children. Flanked by flunkeys who ensure her regal air is not sullied by a stumble and who step forward quietly to mop up when mishaps occur – as when Imelda knocks over a framed photo she’s showing the camera, which threatens to set off a cascading collapse of scores of other photos of Imelda with prominent personalities.

Her wish to return The Philippines to the paradise it was when she and Ferdinand reigned is contrasted with the testimonies of victims of the dictatorship, recounting their incarceration and torture.  Most of the critics admit amazement at how far Imelda and her accomplices have steered members of the Marcos family back into public life, with the help of some of the billions looted from the economy during the Marcos presidency. (She admits in the film that she had money in 170 banks.) As with Trump and the emboldened mini-Trumps around the world, one wonders, with disappointment and fear, how large numbers of ordinary people gladly throw their support behind such a self-serving clique. 

Throughout the film she looks taught and grim, perhaps the result of the strain, in her eighth decade, of constantly being on show as she tries to re-illuminate the family name and shoehorn into top office a son who lacks his parents’ charisma and drive.

Like The Philippines itself, this is a vivid, colourful tale about chutzpah. Imelda sums up her story with her comment that “Perception is real and the truth is not” and with a glorious Freudian slip: “When you lose your money – your mother – you lose everything.”

* The Kingmaker opens in UK on 13 December.

The Kingmaker

The Kingmaker

Image by The Kingmaker

Director’s statement: “Imelda Marcos, the former First Lady of the Philippines, famed for her addiction to excess, has been an iconic figure in my long-term investigation of wealth through my photography and films. Astonished that she had managed to re-enter Philippine politics after being ousted by a popular uprising, I began filming her and discovered that, at age 85, she remained a skilled “political animal,” as her son Bongbong describes her. The Kingmaker chronicles her attempts to regain power through her son Bongbong’s bid to become vice-president. Imelda has worked to rewrite the history of her family and replace it with the narrative of a matriarch’s lavish love for her country. In an age when fake news manipulates elections, Imelda’s comeback story is a dark fairy tale. It is brought into sharper focus by a little-known footnote of Imelda’s legacy—an island that she depopulated in order to import African animals for a safari park. The story of the neglected animals’ struggle today serves as a symbol of the plight of the Filipino people, forced to navigate the legacy of decades of corruption.” – Lauren Greenfield



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