Arts and Culture

Imelda vs. ‘Imelda’

- Alfred A. Yuson -
It was on Thursday, June 24, that we previewed the documentary Imelda at the MTRCB. It was supposed to be screened in the evening, in what was billed as a press preview. A good thing I came in formal wear, too, else I might have incurred approbation from our otherwise charitably minded MTRCB chair, Madame Ma. Consoliza "Marissa" Laguardia.

To my surprise, we had special guests for our preview screening. There was Imelda Romualdez Marcos, former First Lady, accompanied by a young lawyer. The dapper Assistant Solicitor-General Rodolfo Urbiztondo was also there at chair Laguardia’s office. Makati Judge Ma. Cristina Cornejo was there, too, as I was to learn. Her RTC sala would have to decide on whether to grant Mrs. Marcos’ petition for preliminary injunction, prayer for TRO or temporary restraining order, against any screening of the film outside our MTRCB preview.

Chairman for the preview committee of three was Atty. Eric Mallonga, with Joey Romero and myself as members. Eric, with whom I’m on regular guffawing basis, but who seemed in officious mode when I entered the room, quickly introed me to the guests. I nodded most respectfully in everyone’s direction.

As I seated myself beside him, Madame Imelda’s lawyer seemed to think I needed some briefing on why they were there. He launched into the reasons for their petition. I looked at my watch and noted that we should start the preview in five minutes as scheduled, and that we should in fact be trooping over to the film preview room already, except that Joey still had to make his presence felt.

The young lawyer went on about how Imelda the documentary’s director, Romina S. Diaz, had more or less misrepresented herself in gaining Imelda the subject’s cooperation for the filming. He said Ms. Diaz had told Imelda that it was for a student thesis. And now the docu was going "commercial" pala.

He was quite articulate. But since I wasn’t exactly in an accommodating mood owing to my stifling attire (I usually wear a loose, comfortable caftan when conducting MTRCB preview duties), and I’d never known Joey Romero to be late, I had to cut him off.

"Sorry to butt in, Attorney, but everything you’re saying I believe we know already, as we’ve read it in the papers. Besides, those are all legal grounds you’re expressing, which have nothing to do with our business at hand. That business is to preview the film and classify it according to MTRCB’s guidelines as detailed in our IRR or implementing rules and regulations."

I thought I saw the judge nodding appreciatively. Eric took it from there, saying yes, we really only had to apply our guidelines in classifying the film. It was up to the judge to decide on legal grounds whether to issue a temporary ban on the film or not. Meanwhile, to help her in her decision, the MTRCB would be willing to have her and an assistant, as well as Asst. Sol-Gen Urbiztondo, sit in during the preview. They would be the only people allowed in the room with us. And of course chair Laguardia and vice chair Jackie Aquino Gavino, who was also around. That is, should they be interested in watching the preview too, as non-voting MTRCB members. But Madame Imelda Marcos, her lawyer and other companions were welcome to cool their heels in chair Laguardia’s office.

Joey Romero arrived on the dot, and so we walked over to our small film preview room, which at best can accommodate ten people in a comfortable seating arrangement. A good thing the back wall or divider had only recently been set up, to compartmentalize the projectors. Otherwise our esteemed guests would have the vintage machines whirring noisily right down their backs.

And so began the preview screening, of the full-length docu that had already started to reap distinctions in the global film community, led off by a Best Cinematography award at Robert Redford’s Sundance Festival earlier in the year, after its world premiere at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam. Word-of-web had occasional Netties like me updated on the docu’s progress as it made the rounds of Filipino communities in the US. It was fast gaining full-house audiences and plaudits.

In the dark, I begin to enjoy the film. The cinematography is outstanding alright. We see Imelda applying makeup, either before a dresser or inside a large van. And we’re right there with her, admiring every enigmatic pore and cosmetic touch applied by an obviously well-practiced hand.

We visit with her in Palo, Leyte, sashay with her toward the MacArthur, Romulo et. al. surf-wading monument on a shallow, shoreline pool, and see how Leyteños still congregate excitedly around her, seeking photo-ops for posterity.

We are taken back and forth in time, with historical vignettes stitched in craftily as black-and-white footage, which has all been carefully researched and selected for its adroit effectivity. We course through the subject’s provenance, in the context of the Philippine Commonwealth and its bemusing matrix of American domination, small-town mores, easy politics, beauty contests, whirlwind courtships, such as the storied 11-day fling that started at the Congress’ canteen when then Assemblyman Ferdinand Marcos was first introduced to the svelte beauty fresh from the province, and which climaxed in nuptials that would spell political and corollary fortune for both figures of a conjugal destiny.

Interviews become an integral part of the exposition, which strikingly features not a word of narration. The narrative is advanced with impressive economy of scenes and mise-en-scenes, lofted along with brilliant structural techniques – Imelda’s fascinating story emerging solely through the sound bites collated from the interviews with the subject, her town mates, son Bongbong Marcos, journalists Conrad de Quiros, Pete Lacaba and Jo-Ann Maglipon, couturier Christian Espiritu, Senator Serge Osmeña, among others. There’s also a charming one of a thoroughly cooperative lady staffer at the Malacañang Museum when the big draw was still the hundreds of pairs of shoes.

A third of the way into the docu, I am convinced that it is a fine, eloquent piece of film work. But additional come-ons strengthen it further. There is a poignant scene with Imelda standing by the supine wax figure that was our 10th and most powerful President, in his air-conditioned crypt in Ilocos. There is Imelda running for election, urging her van driver to distribute, but only so many, giveaways of her photos and small calendars to the pressing crowd. And there is the moving juxtaposition of a gay revue’s musical number with the cross-cut visual commentary on the Pinoy’s socio-political morass, or is it morality.

Most of us applaud at film’s end. We are careful not to say anything as the lights go up and Judge Cornejo moves toward the door, albeit sorely tempted am I to announce: "All Filipinos should see this brilliant film, specially our schoolchildren."

And that is how I wind up starting my written commentary for the individual voting slip MTRCB previewers have to fill up. I write: "All Filipinos should see this finely-crafted film, which is a classic documentation that is part of our rich history. It’s very fair, artistic, well-researched, beautifully structured and edited, and in fact presents all sides of a complex picture." I then apply a check mark on the box before General Audience, giving it a G rating.

We are in accord —- Eric, Joey and I —- that it is an excellent film we have just watched. Of course that should have nothing much to do – but remains a factor nonetheless – with how we should classify it. But again we all agree that there is nothing in the docu that violates any of the parameters for a General Audience classification.

As chair, Atty. Eric Mallonga is tasked with penning the extended committee report, which consolidates the individual commentaries. His final report I ought to quote in full here:

"Unanimous committee rating of ‘G.’ This fair, balanced, sensitive, and objective depiction of a public political figure and her family against the backdrop of national political developments and historical passage is so safe that even children of elementary school age can watch this movie without any traumatic reaction and appreciate it as a historical passage in the country’s growth towards political maturity and progress. There is nothing libelous or defamatory to the name and reputation of any person (Columnist’s note: This has to be stressed, as this area is covered by our IRR.), whether living or dead, nor anything that threatens the political stability of our government. Neither is there a glorification of criminals or condonation of crime to warrant the public exhibition’s prohibition of this excellent documentary."

Out on the hallway, I come face to face with the docu subject again. Characteristically, she appears teary-eyed as she speaks with chair Laguardia. When asked, I announce our rating verdict, which may have nothing much to do with the Makati court’s decision on her petition. I can’t help but address Mrs. Marcos.

"Ma’am, the film is entirely fair, and may even be said to be positive for your person."

"But all the things it says about my husband," she replies, choking with emotion. "That he was a thief, that he was…"

"Begging your pardon, Ma’am, but everyone knows that already, I mean, everyone’s heard of that allegation already. No fresh allegations are made against him or you in this film. Believe me, Ma’am, objectively speaking, there are elements in your persona that the public will be treated to for the first time. You could even wind up gaining fresh sympathy. At worst, or at best, it is most fair in its treatment. It is fascinating, you are fascinating, and it’s such an excellent film."

"That’s also what she said," Ma’am Meldy says in weepy riposte, gesturing toward a tall, elegantly dressed lady hovering by. "But… that movie will damage our reputations… She said she was only doing a student’s thesis. Now it will be shown commercially…"

I am tempted to say that her legal action would certainly only make the film draw a larger audience. I am tempted to say that I can’t help but be cynical and suspect that if she were not otherwise misguided, misinformed, or badly advised, she and her camp might actually be in cahoots (er, in a manner of speaking) with the producer-director, to ensure SRO crowds.

I am tempted to ask: Have you discussed it with your daughter Imee? As the pioneer herself who instituted the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines and helped establish the Film Ratings Board, she would surely tell you that no ban is advisable on films, especially good ones, that no ban works; in fact the film in question only draws more attention.

But I am aware that formally dressed as I am on this exceptional day, my cocoon of elegance is no match for Imelda’s own, and that it could be pointless to argue that any TRO on Imelda the documentary can only guarantee bigger crowds when it’s finally shown.

In fact, inside myself I am already congratulating Romina S. Diaz for this coup. Her eight-year-effort (she started shooting the interviews with Mrs. Marcos in 1996) has paid off. Her film is superb, and will be seen by millions who will appreciate it.

I learn later that day that the TRO has been granted. Oh, well. Judge Cornejo may well be trying her best to be fair to all parties concerned. It’s only a 20-day prohibition, anyway, unless she decides on a permanent injunction after she’s thoroughly studied and weighed the merits of the case.

Days later, I see a copy of a personal release form issued to the MTRCB by Diaz’s Aditya Productions based in San Francisco, California, where it states, among others, that "The undersigned individual hereby grants to the above named Production Company, and its successors… (etc.)… the perpetual and irrevocable right to use the undersigned’s name, likeness, voice, biography and history in connection with the production, distribution and exploitation of the Program… (etc.)."

The signature below reads: Imelda Romualdez Marcos. The date: 12/11/96

I understand that Unitel Pictures, the local distributor, has filed a motion before the Supreme Court to upturn the TRO ruling. Oh, well, let’s not tread on legal grounds. No urge to be cited in contempt of the sub judice rule. Suffice it to say that Diaz’s documentary on Imelda is world-class, as much as the docu subject is, and will always be.











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