The Kingmaker: The harrowing documentary that shouldn’t even exist

Text by Bernadette Anne Morales


February 25, 2020. It’s been 34 years since the EDSA revolution of 1986—the event that changed the modern history of the Philippines forever. Decades later, it is deeply ironic that the family overthrown by the world-famous “bloodless revolution” remains influential and powerful. Their matriarch Imelda Marcos is even the subject of an internationally-acclaimed documentary film, The Kingmaker.

On its premiere night in the UP Film Center January 29, I noticed older fighters and activists reuniting, chatting and welcoming each arriving companion with hugs. Suddenly, in a striking scream that echoed through the laughter, one of the elders tried to start a classic chant —“Marcos, Hitler, Diktador, Tuta!” I chimed in, and to my surprise, the response was quite silent from the number of activists in the event. 

I thought that maybe some of them were too weak to shout at the top of their lungs anymore. One of the elders I was in line with said, “Huwag na si Marcos, patay na ‘yon e. Dapat si Duterte naman.” I recalled the newer chants we younger activists use nowadays and responded, “Duterte, Marcos walang pinag-iba! ‘Yan na po ang bago ngayon e ano?” She smiled and said, “‘Yan ganyan na dapat.” 

Little did I know that this simple interaction would fit quite well into the theme of the harrowing documentary we were about to watch.

The Kingmaker, directed by multi-awarded filmmaker Laura Greenfield, focused on the Marcos family’s efforts to re-establish their image among Filipinos and to regain their political stronghold, including Imelda’s dreams of seeing her son Bongbong become the president of the Philippines and the connection her children Bongbong and Imee have established with now President Rodrigo Duterte. 

The film debuted internationally in August 2019 at the 76th Venice Film Festival, and was only screened in the Philippines this year. 


Deserving of international praise

There’s no doubt that Greenfield did a good job with The Kingmaker. The years of effort, financing, and research put into its production are definitely commendable and has garnered positive responses since its premiere.

Artistically speaking, The Kingmaker’s aesthetics were okay. There was the clever use of juxtaposition in its cinematography and wordplay. For example,  the word impoverished was spoken by Imelda as she was sitting comfortably in her limousine, clutching a bunch of crisp, 20-peso bills.

 One of the most jarring scenes was when Imelda, in a voiceover, praised the Martial Law years as the best years for Filipino sovereignty, justice, and human rights, as footage of abuse from that same era were visualized on screen. 

The stark contrast between Imelda’s grandiosity and the landscape of Filipino slums also made for great poverty porn material. The English-Filipino translation of the subtitles, courtesy of Martial Law activist Susan Tagle, helped a great deal in making the film more direct and concise. 

The entirety of the piece was coherent enough and was worth watching even if it was over two hours long. The Kingmaker was engaging and alive, and wasn’t dreary or dragging at all.


A foreign perspective on the Marcoses

However, the ideological aspects of “The Kingmaker” were somewhat double-edged. Many foreign award-giving bodies wouldn’t have cared about any negative implications set by the film. In the eyes of a Filipino—whose country is so dangerously tormented by the subject of the documentary—what does The Kingmaker as a piece of art and popular media convey? 

The Kingmaker was made through a foreign lens; an outsider’s perspective on the monstrosity that is Imelda Marcos. 

Because of this, Greenfield had an obvious upper hand when it came to covering figures like Imelda due to her stellar background and name in the film scene.  

She also happens to be a white woman herself, one that Imelda would most likely reveal herself to considering that she has an affinity for anything Western and would love any prospect of being glorified. Thus, the access to having the Marcoses at much ease and confidence in her recordings was available. 

That opportunity to catch her in her raw moments is unavailable to local filmmakers who don’t strike Imelda as anything special or too dangerous in her eyes. 

History professor Xiao Chua joked in the panel discussion that he too sat in a long, 15-hour interview with Imelda. “Matindi…” he described it. 

The documentary, though, showed him new things he said he hadn’t heard from Imelda before. She had moments of sadness and vulnerability; she said she gets depressed by seeing Manila in such a poor state; she talked about her depression and discontent with her life and how she was cured by a psychologist. 

It all contributes to representing humanity in Imelda, if she has any to spare— perhaps it would only be for Western media. 

It was also a good thing that The Kingmaker tried to retell the story through a periodical basis. It connected the past, the present and the future and showed the extent of the Marcoses’ powers throughout the years. 

There were scenes depicting the ongoing mentality of Imelda’s projects as utang na loob through many Filipinos warmly accommodating her visits, viewing Imelda with gratitude and reverence; and the most important and glaring of all examples being their alliance with the current Duterte administration – being a pivotal part in his 2016 presidential bid and funding his campaign. 

The Kingmaker presented a timeline, coming off as some sort of a primer for someone who may want to know why the Marcoses remain relevant. However, as the earlier interaction goes, it’s Duterte’s turn to be criticized and penalized.

A disadvantage that came with the film was that only the most prominent voices were available. The Philippines was portrayed as a nation ruled solely by giant oligarchs such as the Marcoses and the Aquinos, which is an understandable viewpoint especially based on a foreigner’s perspective. 

In the panel discussion, martial law activist Susan Tagle recommended watching Ramona Diaz’s critically acclaimed 2003 documentary film on Imelda Marcos entitled “Imelda” to provide further context to viewers about the matriarch. Tagle also mentioned that Greenfield may have just been trying to avoid repetitive content. 

The activist in me might have liked to present the activists as more than just victims, but as Filipinos who fought for what was right in the midst of the ruling elite’s greed and violence. 

Greenfield had also mentioned in past interviews that she initially thought her film would be a sort of “redemption story,” but discerned she needed other sources upon realizing how much of an ‘unreliable narrator’ Imelda was. To be fair, she made a noble attempt to compare and contrast Imelda’s delusions to the actual horrors their family had cast upon the country. 

However, the facts were laid out pretty ambiguously, even with Greenfield’s use of juxtaposition, a dialectic approach and Cinema Verite a style of documentary filmmaking that improvises to unveil truth or highlight subjects hidden behind crude reality. The equations only made sense to me since I was an activist myself.

What I saw only added up with what I already knew to be enough for me to discern how evil and bad the Marcos regime really was, and that the matriarch’s grandiose personality was just a glittery cover-up for their atrocities. 

Greenfield said that she chose Imelda Marcos as a ‘natural’ subject because of her being an ‘iconic reference point’ of wealth, consumerism and materialism. It’s evident here that Greenfield’s knowledge of Imelda is limited to her cultural impact, despite the intersection with political and socioeconomic impacts. It was only later on that she discovered how the Marcoses powers transcend through time, making some other aspects of Imelda’s identity seem like an afterthought. 


Rewriting narrative?

The why’s aren’t as thoroughly fleshed out; and with that I didn’t fully grasp the essence of a Kingmaker as the documentary was trying to say.

I am curious as to why Imelda’s edifice complex wasn’t given more focus, and why anomalies surrounding the Film Center and her other projects weren’t mentioned at all. The Manila Film Center brouhaha could’ve been discussed for proof of blood blatantly visible in Imelda’s hands.

She’s not just some innocent woman clad in glittery dresses and sparkly shoes prancing around Malacañang 24/7. She herself has been responsible for violence and abuse, and sadly that is not what you get from the film. 

It scares me to think that if The Kingmaker wasn’t contextualized properly, a viewer may even sympathize with the Marcoses. A viewer can easily fall in love with Imelda’s character, even with the activists’ horrifying narratives placed right beside Imelda’s image; and that’s even more damaging.

It’s deeply infuriating that a documentary such as The Kingmaker could exist. And no, I’m not berating Greenfield for choosing Imelda as her subject; I’m mad that people as dark and shameless as the Marcoses are still glorified and given the chance to control their narrative in this day and age.  

At the same time, historical revisionism is rampant, and the youth of today are sorely affected. The scenes depicting junior high school students around Metro Manila all giving off positive comments about the Martial Law era and the Marcoses show how effective their narrative has been propagating. 

Even the panelists in the post-viewing discussion—Chua,  UP Student Regent Isaac Punzalan, Faculty Regent Bomen Guillermo, and Tagle—admitted there have been gaps that are hard to fill in the education of Philippine history. 

All the crimes and lawsuits mentioned in the documentary that resulted in the Marcoses’ acquittal and the very existence of the documentary show we haven’t been doing enough. 

Imelda likes the attention she gets, that she’s yet again the star of a movie. ”A star in the dark of the night”, as she likes to call herself. She’s depicted with glamour and even given reverence by many. 

In her haunting last lines in the film, Imelda even says, “Perception is real, and the truth is not… so the past is the past. There are so many things in the past that we should forget. In fact, it’s no longer there.” 

There are so many questions lingering inside of my head: why do we allow her to parade around like this? Why do we still allow her to live and speak like this? Why can their family do so much damage and just experience a slap on the wrist?

In a just society, The Kingmaker shouldn’t even exist. And if it did, it should be shot inside a jail, not in the comfort of their mansions and ill-gotten wealth.

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