Imelda Marcos, the former first lady of the Philippines, has spent the past three decades swathed in controversy and mythology as vivid as the silk dresses she wears. Her late husband, Ferdinand, robbed his country during his two-decade reign, amassing an alleged multibillion-dollar fortune and leaving the Philippines in poverty, corruption, and despair. Imelda’s storied shoe and art collections garnered the former beauty queen a reputation for being a modern-era Marie Antoinette, extravagance incarnate. The Marcoses are arguably the 20th century’s most infamous political couple; in 1989, Guinness World Records credited them with the largest-ever theft from a government—an estimated $5 billion to $10 billion.
When Lauren Greenfield (The Queen of Versailles, Generation Wealth) sat down with Imelda five years ago, the documentary filmmaker thought that the aging former first lady—85 at the time—might want to distance herself from her late husband’s corrupt narrative and secure herself a rosier legacy.
“When I first met her, I thought [the film] could even be a redemption story for her because she seems like such a nice person,” Greenfield told Vanity Fair, explaining that Imelda had all the elements for a sympathetic spin. She lost her mother when she was eight. She was so overcome with anxiety during her husband’s early political career that she worked with a psychologist. And she endured a humiliating cheating scandal when audio tapes capturing her husband’s affair with American actor Dovie Beams were made public. “I [envisioned her] kind of distancing herself from the terrible aspects of the Marcos regime,” said Greenfield. “If she wanted to go that route, she could have said, ‘I was the first lady. I didn’t know what my husband was doing.’”
But Greenfield was shocked to discover that Imelda had no such intent. Instead, the former first lady rewrote history as cameras rolled. In an early scene of The Kingmaker—which opens in theaters Friday—Imelda visits poverty-stricken Filipinos. (Imelda was allowed to return to the Philippines in 1991—five years after being exiled and two years after Ferdinand’s death.) When she sees beggars in the streets, she tears up, speaks of wanting to save her country from the very poverty inflicted by her husband, rolls down a window, and hands out cash to the hungry mobs. She talks about her dream for the country, and positions herself as its loving matriarch—and, later in the film, uses this narrative to propel son Bongbong Marcos to political power. (Bongbong served as senator in the 16th Congress before narrowly losing the 2016 vice presidential election.) Throughout this improbable, second-generation Marcos ascent, Greenfield’s cameras capture the family’s hypocrisy: One scene shows Imelda in a children’s hospital ward, stuffing cash into the hands of the terminally ill; in the next, she guides Greenfield’s cameras past the ill-begotten Picasso and Michelangelo paintings in her home to an archive of portraits of Imelda with “friends”—dictators like Muammar al-Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, and Chairman Mao Zedong.
When Greenfield visited Bongbong’s office, the filmmaker was stunned to see how closely the second-generation politician was clinging to Ferdinand’s controversial legacy—even as he campaigned for the popular vote. The office, Greenfield said, was covered with photographs of the family’s life, palace, and achievements. “He went on to praise his parents,” Greenfield said.
Speaking about Imelda and Bongbong’s spin, Greenfield added, “It’s like they’re just leaning into the story [of the family’s history], and rebranding it, and saying it was all good things, instead of apologizing or admitting to any of the bad things…. Kind of like Donald Trump, who never apologizes for anything, and just leans into it, and says it was the right thing and everything else was untrue.”
Seeing how Imelda was “not only an unreliable narrator but actively rewriting the history of her family in the country in a way that was dangerous,” Greenfield recruited “truth-tellers” to include in the documentary, “to provide the audience with kind of a signpost of what was true and what was not.”
The Kingmaker ended up not being the redemption story that Greenfield had imagined, but something even more improbable: an Imelda Marcos comeback story, in which the former first lady drives a second generation of her family to power in the country from which she had been exiled. Thinking of an American comparison of this political reversal, Greenfield said, “It would be kind of like if Nixon was back in power—it seems unimaginable that you would be condemned in that official way and then be able to go up in elected office.”
Speaking about Imelda’s steely, if sometimes ridiculous-seeming, resolve, Greenfield said, “I think there’s always this thing, like, Is she crazy? She comes up with these ideas that people think are laughable. In a way that’s the mistake that’s been made with her. I think we can kind of relate to that in terms of Trump’s ascendancy and people underestimating him and not taking him seriously. And I think Imelda is getting the last laugh now as her family’s back in power, and they have been able to hold on to the money that they took from the Filipino people—$5 billion to $10 billion that was taken and $4 billion recovered…. The money allowed them to come back, gain power in a place where you can buy votes, and also fund social media to perpetuate their rewriting of history and kind of rebranding.”
Greenfield said that Imelda continually stunned her throughout filming—noting that she was a generous documentary subject, provided filming was “on her terms.” On one occasion, Greenfield said, Imelda announced that she wanted to take the film crew to the gymnasium in the ancestral home. “I had no idea what the gymnasium was,” Greenfield said, explaining that when she entered the room, it contained hundreds of thousands of court documents from the $200 million fraud case she won against the U.S. government. “She kind of arranged [the documents] like a shrine or a museum,” said the filmmaker. “Most people would think it was [a shrine] to her own criminality or money laundering.” (Imelda was charged with stealing $200 million from the Philippines and using it to buy jewelry, artwork, and a handful of Manhattan skyscrapers.) “But because she won that case, in her mind, it’s kind of a badge of honor of her innocence. It’s just kind of incredible that she presented and art directed the whole thing in her home.”
But does Imelda believe her extreme revisionist spin?
“I think she completely does believe her story and, in a way, that makes her a little bit empathetic,” theorized Greenfield. “I don’t think she’s lying in that sense, but she’s also created a story that allows her survival, because she can kind of live with herself and move on.”
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