In Lauren Greenfield’s new documentary The Kingmaker, former Philippines first lady Imelda Marcos demonstrates her largesse, reaching through the window of her limousine to hand banknotes to kids on the street. Later she performs a similar service at a hospital, bestowing cash on families of sick children. She keeps a stack of bills at the ready for such occasions.
This might be considered a noble gesture and left at that were it not for the troubling question of where her money comes from. Imelda and her husband, President Ferdinand Marcos, were suspected of looting the Philippines treasury before he was ousted in 1986 in the People Power Revolution.
“In the beginning of the film, I think you don’t know quite how to take it, because she is generous and kind and caring and wants to help people…You can see her instinct to give,” Greenfield tells Deadline. “But as you get to know her and the history, you realize that they stole 5 to $10 billion. So her giving back $20 to cancer patients is a pittance.”
The ambiguity of Imelda—generous or venal, self-sacrificing or self-dealing, bystander to political violence or accomplice—pervades The Kingmaker, which opens in theaters in New York and Los Angeles on Friday. It’s an awards contender this season, having been named to the DOC NYC shortlist of the year’s best nonfiction films. The Kingmaker is nominated in several categories, including Best Documentary, at this Sunday’s Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards (the show already named Imelda Marcos one of the winners of its Most Compelling Living Subject of a Documentary honor).
Greenfield began filming with Imelda in 2014. Now 90, Marcos lives comfortably in Manila, the walls of her dwelling adorned with a Picasso here, a Michelangelo there.
“Kind of my entry point was having looked at wealth for a long time in both my films and photography and Marie Antoinette characters like Jackie Siegel in The Queen of Versailles,” Greenfield says.“In a way, that’s what drew me to Imelda first. But the story and the character that I found was much more complex.”
Many Americans may not recall a lot about Imelda other than the extent of her shoe collection—excessive, perhaps, even for a millipede. She left behind 3,000 pairs of heels, mules, and pumps when she fled the Malacañang Palace 33 years ago for exile in Hawaii.
But The Kingmaker reveals there’s been a long second act for Imelda, following her return to the Philippines in 1991 after she was acquitted in the U.S. on fraud, racketeering and other charges (Ferdinand Marcos died in Hawaii in 1989).
“I was just so fascinated by her comeback story,” Greenfield comments. “As the project progressed, it became clear that she was interested in getting back into power for her family.”
Imelda twice ran failed campaigns for president in the 1990s, but did serve for a time in congress.
“I called the story Kingmaker after I read the definition of kingmaker, which said it’s somebody who has a great influence on a political dynasty or a candidate without being a viable candidate themselves. And I think that’s Imelda’s story,” Greenfield observes. “She’s an incredible politician. Her son says she’s the best politician in the family, including his father. And yet she isn’t and never has been a viable [presidential] candidate.”
Imelda’s daughter Imee is a senator, but her immediate hopes are pinned on son, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., known as Bongbong. Greenfield followed Bongbong in 2015 as he ran for vice president, a race he lost by an extremely narrow margin. He has been challenging the results ever since.
Imelda, naturally, defends her late husband, herself and her family in the documentary, but Greenfield began to take it with more than a grain of salt.
“I realized she was an unreliable narrator. That is an understatement, because she was actively rewriting history,” she observes. “I felt compelled journalistically and ethically and historically to let the audience know what the true facts were, and to hear them from people who experienced them.”
Some of those who speak out in the film suffered under President Marcos in the 1970s after he declared martial law.
“The people who are the truth tellers about what happened are people like Etta Rosales and May Rodriguez, who are human rights activists who experienced torture themselves,” Greenfield comments. “Or President Noynoy Aquino…whose father [Benigno] was assassinated during the Marcos regime as the main political opposition.”
Bongbong Marcos is expected to run for president in 2022 to succeed President Rodrigo Duterte, who is limited by law to a single term. Duterte has been accused of authorizing the extra-judicial killing of thousands of people suspected of using or dealing drugs, but that hasn’t kept the Marcos family from lending him support.
“In a way the breaking news revelation for me is the alliance between the Marcos’s and Duterte, and the fact that the Marcos’s helped fund Duterte,” Greenfield states. “I think Duterte has made no secret that he admired [Ferdinand] Marcos…They both have trampled on democratic institutions, whether it is an independent judiciary, a free press, the independence of congress, squelching the opposition. That, I think, has been really the shocking part of what happens with the rise of Duterte.”
The aim of The Kingmaker, Greenfield says, goes beyond painting a portrait of Imelda Marcos and her quest to influence the future of the Philippines.
“I have been really excited that people are getting what I was trying to express in the film,” Greenfield shares, “which is that it is also a cautionary tale about the fragility of democracy and the return of authoritarian regimes.”