The Philippines, and its long tug of war between democracy and autocracy, is the subject of two timely documentaries.
In A Thousand Cuts, set for U.S. release later this summer, director Ramona Diaz examines the Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte, who has unleashed a campaign of violence and murder on drug suspects and tightened the noose around press freedoms. Just today, crusading journalist Maria Ressa—the hero of A Thousand Cuts—was convicted of “cyber libel” and sentenced to up to six years in prison.
The Kingmaker, meanwhile, takes as its subject the colorful former first lady of the Philippines, Imelda Marcos, and her quest to establish a political dynasty. The Showtime documentary directed by Lauren Greenfield is now in the running for Emmy nominations.
“I started filming with [Imelda] in 2014 after I found out about Animal Island, an island of African animals that she and President Marcos created in 1976 in the South China Sea,” Greenfield tells Deadline. “I was just so fascinated by her comeback story after the things we all remembered, which was fleeing the Philippines and leaving in the palace 3,000 pairs of shoes. I wanted to go over and see what had become of her and see what had become of these animals.”
The animals haven’t fared too well, suffering from neglect even before the Marcoses—Imelda and husband Ferdinand—were forced to flee their homeland in 1986 in the midst of the People’s Power Revolution. Inbreeding also took its toll on the menagerie of gazelles, giraffes, zebras and other creatures. Imelda, on the other hand, has proven remarkably resilient.
In 1988 she was acquitted in New York on federal charges of fraud, racketeering and conspiracy in a trial that featured minor roles for Imelda friends George Hamilton and Doris Duke, the tobacco heiress. Imelda was allowed to return to the Philippines in 1991 with her children, including daughter Imee, and son Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. She then devoted her energies to reclaiming the political clout of the Marcos name.
“When I began the project I thought of her more as this empress dowager,” Greenfield allows. “As the project progressed it became clear that she was interested in getting back into power for her family. That started to become a reality even though it seemed like nothing like that could happen when I began.”
Imelda was elected to congress several times, and mounted two failed bids for the presidency. Imee is currently serving in the senate. The film documents Bongbong’s campaign for Vice President in 2015, an election he lost to Leni Robredo by a razor-thin margin (Bongbong has been contesting the results ever since). The Kingmaker also uncovers the behind-the-scenes role the Marcos clan played in getting Duterte elected president in 2016.
“Definitely I think that was the big breaking news piece of the film, was making clear that alliance between Duterte and the Marcoses,” Greenfield comments, “and the fact that the Marcoses had financed the campaign.”
Duterte has even said he would step aside for Bongbong to become president were Ferdinand Jr. to win his legal appeal over the result of the 2015 vice presidential contest. But the affinity between the autocratic Duterte and the Marcoses doesn’t end there, in Greenfield’s view.
“Duterte has made no secret that he admired [President Ferdinand] Marcos,” the director notes. “I think the appeal of the strongman is something [shared] with the Marcos regime and with Duterte. 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 Kingmaker earned a theatrical release in the U.S. last fall before debuting on Showtime. The prospect of Philippine audiences seeing it appeared doubtful.
“We didn’t think we could ever show it there,” Greenfield admits, “and then we got an invitation from the only two venues in the country that are free from the government censors, the University of the Philippines, which was where there was a lot of resistance during the revolution in 1986, and also the Cultural Center, which ironically was one of Imelda’s extravagant buildings,” opened during her reign as the country’s first lady.
The Cultural Center screening became a sensation, Greenfield says.
“I was at Sundance, so I couldn’t go,” she shares. “But I came in on a Skype Q&A, which they organized really beautifully so I could see the audience and it was so moving. During the credits, people started spontaneously chanting, ‘Never again, never again.’ At the Q&A there were survivors of torture [during the Marcos regime] and there were tears…The minority leader in the senate was there and he said it was a history lesson every Filipino young person needed. It was just an amazing response.”
Some of the survivors of torture, from the era when Ferdinand Marcos ruled under martial law, appear in the documentary. “Those testimonies,” Greenfield observes, “were really important for the film and important for the audience.”
Viewers of the film may see a parallel between the political dynasty Imelda has sought to build and one President Trump perhaps envisions; he has been criticized for nepotism for handing important policy and advisory roles to his daughter Ivanka and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. In that sense, The Kingmaker can be seen as a warning.
“I think political dynasty is huge in the Philippines and that was certainly one of the lessons in the film,” Greenfield asserts. “I think Leni Robredo really nailed it when she made the connection with inbreeding and the danger of inbreeding and political dynasty for democracy and for good leadership and independent leadership. That was a big part of my wanting to weave together the inbreeding in the Animal Island.”
The Kingmaker speaks not only to the destiny of the Philippines, but to an autocratic trend in politics globally.
“By the end of the filming, with Duterte becoming elected, it was really history coming full circle, and a cautionary tale about how easy it is to go back to something like dictatorship, and really the fragility of democracy; that we’re one election away from losing the values that we think synonymous with our way of living,” says Greenfield. “But I think what’s happened in the Philippines and what happens in The Kingmaker story has [relevance to] the rise of authoritarianism in Europe and the Trumpian era.”