By Carmen Aquino Sarmiento

The Kingmaker
Directed by Lauren Greenfield

And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. — 2 Corinthians 11:14

THE MUCH-AWARDED documentary The Kingmaker, by Lauren Greenfield, opens with the octogenarian Imelda Romualdez Marcos handing out crisp 20 peso bills to the clamorous rabble, through the purposely open window of her van. It was 2014, and Mrs. Marcos was in her latest political incarnation as the representative of Ilocos Norte-Congressional District 2. (When she turned 90 last year, her nephew Angel Barba, the son of President Ferdinand Marcos’ youngest sister Fortuna Marcos Barba, took over this seat.) But even then, the groundwork was being laid for the ascendancy of her only son, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr.

That was a relatively quiet period in the life of “The Beautiful One,” as the assassinated Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, Sr. called her. She had been on the world stage, hobnobbing with the mightiest 1%, since the mid-1960s. Through the years, she has been the subject of countless visual artists, of playwrights Carlos Celdran and David Byrne, and another documentarist Ramona Diaz (Imelda, 2003). Greenfield speculates that it was during this lull that Mrs. Marcos might have found the attention and the prospect of being the subject of yet another documentary, a welcome diversion.

Savvy and wily as ever, Mrs. Marcos relentlessly milks her every on-screen moment to present her singular version of reality. This is generally a comparison of what it was like, in the time of Marcos (Intra-Marcos), and apres Marcos, le deluge. A lie repeated often enough, becomes the truth. Eg., Intra-Marcos, one did not see beggars or poverty in the Philippines, but only her ostentatious love, and bountiful bodacious beauty. That was probably because shanty towns were hidden behind high whitewashed fences, and critics of their regime were brutally silenced, especially during Marcos’ Martial Law. Nonetheless Mrs. Marcos would have viewers believe that the Marcoses are victims too. The woman is a player, just like a fat ginormous old cat toying with a hapless mouse. In a way, it is she who let’s us see what she wants us to see. Such is Mrs. Marcos’ formidable charisma that Greenfield herself would only say that she was an “unreliable narrator,” instead of naming what she really is: a liar. Pains are taken to juxtapose documentary footage to dispel Mrs. Marcos’ relentless historical revisionism. But words have never inflicted lasting damage on Mrs. Marcos as the impossibility of exacting an execution of judgment of her conviction have shown.

There are times when the artifice slips. She frets about being unable to access her 170 bank accounts, and, while protesting her family’s innocence, gloats at how she smuggled out a Pampers-box full of precious jewels when they were so unceremoniously “kidnapped” in 1986. She slyly notes that not being taken too seriously can work to one’s advantage. The most memorable meme is her unabashed declaration that “Perception is real, the truth is not.” It’s the story of our time.

But how many of the multitudinous apres-Marcos generations (X,Y, Z and i) will see her for what she really is? Grace notes of sobriety and truth come in painful soundbites through the balancing and harrowing interviews of Marcos’ Martial Law survivors, such as Etta Rosales and May Rodriguez who shared details of their detention, torture, and sexual assault at the hands of Marcos state agents. The writer Jose “Pete” Lacaba breaks down as he recalls the mutilation and salvaging of his brother Emman, as well as his own ordeal.

How the powerful manipulate reality was graphically illustrated in Mrs. Marcos’ transformation of Calauit into her family’s private wildlife preserve. It was the exceedingly strange and surreal existence of Calauit which had initially piqued Greenfield’s curiosity. Helpless ruminants — giraffes, gazelles, zebras from the Kenyan savannah — were illegally imported to be captive targets in the Marcos’ personal shooting gallery. Meanwhile the indigenous inhabitants were driven out of their huts and farms. After generations of in-breeding and without an attending veterinarian, the Calauit giraffes have been observed to have shorter necks. Apres Marcos, some of the original displaced Calauit inhabitants made their way back, but the zebra are a bane to their swidden cultivation plots.

Mrs. Marcos pours out the pathos with the measured and mastered cadences of a practiced performer. It may be the artistry of the grifter, the dissembler and the con, but, like all illusion, it is magical and riveting when well done. A horde of snappy servants, sycophants, and security men are the supernumeraries setting the stage for her every calculated move and elegantly cadenced utterance. She proudly presents as the Cinderella-orphan who made good, although publicly, she has never confirmed the published accounts of her barefoot Dickensian childhood. Having lost her mother Remedios Trinidad at a tender age (cue the violins), she asserts and reiterates ad nauseum, her selflessly transcendent role as our nation’s noble mother. In a spasm of gender-fluid introspection, she muses that Ferdinand E. Marcos was not merely husband but also a Svengali-like mother to her. As the 2016 campaign draws nigh, the P20 bills are replaced by stacks of icy blue thousands.

In the early stages, The Kingmaker production crew had extraordinary access, even shooting in Mrs. Marcos’ lavish Makati apartment where several European masters were blatantly on display, including an unlikely Michelangelo which the curator Marian Pastor Roces snorts has a provenance so shady, that some unscrupulous art dealer must have laughed all the way to the bank. Former Presidential Commission on Good Government Commissioner Andres Bautista sent a raiding team to seize these obvious fruits of ill-gotten wealth, but they had been replaced by framed portraits of the Marcoses. Poor Bautista plays it straight, and ruefully notes that since he was the Commission on Elections Commissioner when Leni Robredo narrowly won the vice-presidency against all odds, he had to go into self-exile in Oklahoma.

Watching Mrs. Marcos is as fascinating as the indomitable predators in nature documentaries whose evolutionary biology dictates that they propagate their genes unto the succeeding generations. Her limbic-brained will to power is manifested in her stony determination to see Ferdinand Jr. ensconced in the Palace at any cost. That is why Mr. Bautista must watch his back. Even in her dotage, Mrs. Marcos is not giving up. It must gall her no end that both Corazon C. Aquino and Benigno Simeon “Noynoy” Aquino got that choice plum, the presidency, which she has always aspired for, but which had eluded her.

To put it kindly, Bongbong Marcos is not as gifted as either parent. Now 62, he has anointed his own K-pop pretty and boy band banal son, Sandro Araneta Marcos, as his successor. Greenfield mischievously shows how young Sandro during the 2016 elections, needs a new ballot because, in his own words, he “messed up” and initially voted for two presidents. His paternal grandfather Ferdinand Sr. topped the Bar Exams with the highest average ever. Greenfield inserts a bit about the folly of political dynasties. Sometimes the fruit just keeps rolling away from the tree.