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The iron butterfly

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Critic After Dark

The Kingmaker
Directed by Lauren Greenfield

LAUREN GREENFIELD’s The Kingmaker is a welcome addition to a too-meager genre of films: documentaries and dramas attesting to the abuses of the Marcos’ regime.

Of course the hook Greenfield uses getting us into the sordid history of contemporary Philippine politics is the eponymous figure herself. First Lady of the Philippines for 21 years, having held one government position after another through the passing decades (her latest being Ilocos Norte representative up to June of last year). She’s a compelling figure, alternately comic and monstrous, apparently delusional, definitely sociopathic, eminently unreliable when it comes to the truth about her and her much adored, much loathed husband and family (to quote Robert Thom and Charles Griffith: “Loved by thousands hated by millions!”).

Greenfield adopts the obvious — and, really, inevitable — strategy: let the woman speak for herself. Imelda turns on her charm full force, at one point presenting an array of framed pictures attesting to all the international celebrities and world figures she has met (standing impassively nearby when one photograph tumbles and shatters, and an aide hurries over to pick up the shards); she spins one tale after another, of how she listened to Saddam Hussein’s troubles and helped achieve world peace with Mao Zedong — images accompany the anecdotes, including one of Imelda smiling beside Ronald Reagan. She smiles and tells the camera, pointblank: “The perception is real, the truth is not.” You can’t help but think of Hitchcock’s lens lingering on Norman Bates’ smile, how this woman possesses considerably more reach and power, has over the years caused infinitely more harm.

Greenfield does a good job sketching what should be familiar territory for most Filipinos: Imelda and her husband Ferdinand’s meteoric rise to power, his chillingly effective attempt to remain in power by declaring Martial Law, his ignominious fall and escape to Hawaii. As Ramona Diaz does in her 2008 documentary Imelda, Greenfield introduces a cast of characters that undermine the former First Lady’s fairytale narrative* — here using powerful testimony from Andres Bautista (who led the hunt for Marcos’ hidden wealth) and Etta Rosales (torture survivor and head of the Commission on Human Rights), among others. Really, one can pick any number of witnesses to the corruption, excruciations, killings — the family, say, of Primitivo Mijares, whose expose The Conjugal Dictatorship is still the definitive inside look, and whose disappearance (along with the brutalization and murder of his youngest son Boyet) only validates his words.

Where Greenfield comes into her own is in the film’s second half, chronicling Imelda’s long climb back to a position of power — higher now than ever before thanks to the Philippines’ current president. Greenfield shows us video footage of both Duterte and eldest daughter Imee Marcos admitting the family had contributed substantial money to his election campaign, lets us slowly chew over the implications; she goes on to sketch the corruption and brutality of this regime, seemingly determined to outdo even the Marcoses in body count (some 30,000 victims to date of Duterte’s bloody drug war, according to some sources).

It’s not a perfect work: Greenfield apparently works under the assumption that an honest and logical examination of Imelda’s true character is what’s needed to deal with her, but in an article in The Nation, Rebecca Liu points out another lesson: that in this age of Trump, truth and reason get you only so far, while “intuition and personality” and “beauty and charisma” seem to get you further. Understanding this and understanding your audience may be crucial to counteracting this kind of success, both in the Philippines and in other countries.

Ms. Liu’s thoughts don’t fully explain Trump or Imelda either, I suspect: Trump appeals to a specific demographic, Imelda and her children to the voters of Ilocos Norte (Ferdinand Marcos’ home province); Trump has shadowy links to Russia’s Putin, Duterte to China’s Xi Jinping.

I’d also take exception to Greenfield’s title: “kingmaker” sounds like a master manipulator standing in the sidelines pulling strings. Putting money into the Duterte campaign was smart but I suspect was Imee’s idea, and brought the family limited success: Ferdinand’s eldest son Bong Bong campaigned to be Duterte’s vice-president and lost; appealed the election results and lost again. Imelda has never struck me as a master anything: a grotesque character certainly, and cunning in how she picks her way through her intricately (if not consistently or coherently) formed narratives — but patently transparent in her inventions, despite Greenfield’s protests to the contrary. Perhaps the older generation of Filipinos just know her too well.

The newer more credible generation however — that’s a problem. They’re like gullible sheep that need to be led, guided, urged along the right path. They —

But you see the problem. Meanwhile there’s this, as I said a welcome addition to an all-too-sparse genre.

*In Ramona Diaz’s case, her witnesses included writer Pete Lacaba and the late Fr. James Reuter.

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