On the wings of Icarus

- Kap Maceda Aguila -
Imelda Romualdez Marcos is a Philippine cultural icon. No news there. Imelda has thousands of shoes. No news there, either. Imelda is obsessed about beauty. We know.

So what new things do we expect to learn from Imelda, the controversial, award-winning documentary by Ramona Diaz?

For one thing, sitting through the movie might convince us that a lot of our deep-seated misgivings and hatred toward the former First Lady can still be tempered by a measure of understanding, if not forgiveness.

The movie depicts (justifiably so) Imelda’s world as one much removed from our own. We see her hobnobbing with people we had only seen on CNN: Mao Tse Tung, Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Fidel Castro, the Pope… the list is impressive. At the peak of her powers, Imelda Marcos was the queen of the Philippines, an ambassador to the world, a patroness of the arts.

Her diplomatic acumen was put to good use. Former president Ferdinand Marcos sent her to Libya to meet and dissuade Muammar Khadaffi from supplying arms to Muslim insurgents in the south. She succeeded — both in getting a commitment from the Libyan leader and in winning his respect and friendship.

Imelda was undoubtedly the strongest First Lady we ever had because she asserted herself the most. She was more than a complement to Ferdinand. She was his most effective soldier — a soldier who also had to endure Marcos’ exacting requirements. In the film, Imelda confesses that she had to be literally tailor-fit to his specifications following her marriage to the young maverick politician. She was asked to eat "this much" and wore clothes "this size." Imelda was the trophy wife, true; a fitting enhancement to the Marcos lore and lure, yes. But to her credit, Mrs. Marcos successfully redefined her role.

When she got ill because of intense dieting coupled with job strain, doctors told Marcos that the only way his wife would live was if he were to give up politics. Surprisingly, Imelda says that Marcos was only too willing to end it there.

But Imelda, fatefully, was not.

Instead, she embraced her role and its demands to help win votes for her husband — singing and charming her way to Malacañang.

But we must make no mistake about it. The dictatorship was both the best and worst thing that happened to our country. Ramona Diaz explores this duality by juxtaposing images of Imelda’s maids seeing to her glamorous and numerous dresses with footage of railroad communities eking out a precarious living.

Indeed, no "edifice complex" (as writer/activist Pete Lacaba put it) could ever gloss over the excesses of the administration while the rest languished in abject poverty. No beautification project could ever make up for the numerous cases of human rights abuse and the gross misappropriation of public funds.

And Martial Law did more than formalize the "conjugal dictatorship." It legitimized the axe of terror and suffering that was brought down upon a hapless populace. Imelda the Beautiful was suddenly recast as Imelda the Brutal. A generation shared the collective cup of suffering, while another was being born having known nothing else but the darkness.

But to Imelda, this was all about reaching for the sky. The pretty girl from Leyte had quickly soared with nary a glance below — just as she knew she would. To this day, Imelda shows that not only is she comfortable with celebrity, she aggressively seeks it.

The movie takes us on a joyride aboard Imelda’s mini-bus where she regales us with her fantastic stories as she proffers her photos to screaming pedestrians. Ever impeccably dressed and always with a scarf, the former First Lady tours us around Leyte and reminisces of the time she met General Douglas MacArthur, and how she sang at his famous return. Imelda also takes us up to her posh Manila condominium — beaming as she watches a tape of a TV interview of her children Bongbong and Imee (who revere her as the greatest politician they have ever met). She also escorts us to the refrigerated crypt of her late husband, Ferdinand Marcos. Imelda looks lovingly at the waxen corpse of her husband, and the tears start to fall afresh.

We see black-and-white footage of a bolo-wielding man lunging for Imelda — savagely swinging the weapon at her even as she lay on the floor. Security personnel – moving ever so painfully slow–pump the crazed man full of lead, but not before he has wounded Imelda so many times. The words "Ninety Seconds of Terror" are flashed on the screen.

"Oh, God! I said if there’s somebody going to kill me, why… does it have to be a bolo that is so ugly?" Imelda says. She suggests that a ribbon would have made it, well, nicer. Imelda wanted to have the unsightly scars surgically repaired, but Ferdinand stopped her. They were her badge of courage, he had said; he with the questionable war medals of lore.

The movie is a photo album of highlights and anecdotes. It is incomplete, a quality that earns it criticism. Of course, a lot of Filipinos know more than just token knowledge of Imelda. We had had to enjoy/endure her. But for an international audience, Imelda is a little too innocuous for a first bite simply because so many people had veritably paid for it in blood. It will raise a howl from those who had suffered under the dictatorship, for the treatment borders on frivolity.

To be fair, the mix of interviewees assured a more rounded – though not necessarily accurate – depiction of Imelda and the dictatorship (one of the Marcos friends even maintains that the best time in Philippine history was Martial Law).

As it stands, Imelda is more of a scrapbook than an assertive, pre-meditated, premised project. Maybe Diaz just wanted to "wing" it. Indeed, Imelda germinated from an original 15-minute appointment with the former First Lady (when Diaz was megging the documentary Spirits Rising about the 1986 Revolution) that slowly stretched to five hours.

Diaz admits to have tailored the movie to "parallel" her experience with Mrs. Marcos. "It started out as this fairy tale, then gets darker and more nonsensical," she told a US reporter. Diaz is fascinated by the way Imelda remains such a "polarizing figure," and that, truth be told, she "did help a lot of people."

But then again, the filmmaker said in the same interview: "Imelda is like a train wreck — you have to sit and watch."

For whether she is defending her championing of beauty, professing her love for Filipinos, or expounding on her nebulous philosophy, Imelda does seem to implode into a self-absorbed black hole. You get the feeling that Imelda still lives in the not-too-distant past, and delights in replaying its scenes figuratively and literally. She might indeed have been unaware or oblivious of the evils of the dictatorship, simply because she was too busy living it up.

Perhaps she is, in a way, like Icarus who flew on wings fashioned with wax. The exhilaration of the great height had intoxicated her until the inevitable great fall from the pedestal of power.

But Imelda also shows that Filipinos will always be in love with royalty — an unconditional love that transcends unforgivable sins and transgressions. We live vicariously through Imelda our pop icon, so the movie goes. That is why we are so fascinated by her. That is why we gawk and sigh and swoon at her feet. That is why we put her shoes in a museum to be admired. They are not lessons in the vulgarity or excess. They symbolize what we can attain; what we should attain. Just like the curator who wears the shoes when no one is looking, we all want a taste of royalty.

Critics have said that Ramona Diaz wimps out on making a decisive stand against Imelda for God knows how many transgressions against us. One can correctly surmise that the filmmaker herself fell in love with the former First Lady. After all, Diaz did admit to be starstruck at the presence of Imeldiffic.

As for the rest of us, Imelda the movie and the Imelda the former First Lady will always mean different things, depending on how she and her late husband touched our lives. Sinner or saint? Heroine or hellspawn? History still has to put a final footnote to Imelda while we grapple with these questions; and the film puts forth more questions than answers, especially when we see how Imelda has sadly continued to delude herself in her cocoon of memories and dreams.

Maybe, just like Imelda, we may never know.

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