A Marcosian game of thrones
Imelda Marcos is front and center in the Award-winning documentary, The Kingmaker.
A Marcosian game of thrones
THE X-PAT FILES - Scott Garceau (The Philippine Star) - February 23, 2020 - 12:00am

In a way, the fact that The Kingmaker, the Lauren Greenfield documentary about the Marcoses, was brought back to CCP one of many lavish “edifices” constructed by order of Imelda Marcos for a series of sold-out screenings last week must be somewhat gratifying to the former first lady; after all, she still has the drawing power to pack people into theaters to see her talk about “love” and “motherhood,” meanwhile doling out P20 bills to throngs of street kids who spot her vehicle at stoplights and extend their needy palms. She still embodies something — I’m not exactly sure what — about the Filipino temperament, whether it’s the rags-to-riches story, or the myth of seeing only beauty around you, or simply worshiping at the feet of wealth and power.

Imelda’s feet, naturally, get a mention in this documentary that takes us up to the present day, but it’s not just a rehash of the shoe fetish and extravagant purchases that fill this documentary. The other half of the story comes from survivors of martial law, and they lend a stark counterpoint to all the glib “happy days are here again” nonsense spewed by the Marcos crowd.

Perhaps the funniest moment in The Kingmaker — and the movie certainly needs a few, because otherwise it can be rather depressing to take in — occurs in Imelda’s Manila high-rise apartment, where early in the film she’s blithely filmed sitting in her swank sala with a Picasso, a Fragonard, and a (gulp!) Michelangelo stuck on the walls. Someone in her entourage must have thought better of that optic, because in later interviews filmed in the same room, the paintings have been swept away to some hiding place, replaced by black and white portraits of the Marcoses in their heyday.

As with other Marcos documentaries, Greenfield mostly allows Imelda her tongue, effectively letting her string herself up with it. The tagline of the film is Imelda’s own: “Perception is real, and the truth is not.” We get lots of double talk like that, and it certainly shows us that the Trump era of “alternative facts” is nothing new under the sun.

But though The Kingmaker looks back a lot — to the forces that brought Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos to power, to the plundering of US aid and Philippine wealth — it has its sights set on today’s political landscape: how the Marcoses have managed to, in very important ways, resurrect their image by simply outlasting and outliving their critics (those who, presumably, were not eliminated under martial law), playing the courts, biding their time, and constantly pointing out how the Philippines is still mired in poverty. This devilish omnipresent poverty is something that Imelda regards with a studied tut-tut, kawawa expression as she sees the poor flocking her vehicle, or the dilapidated cancer center that she put up half a century ago (here, she doles out P1,000 bills to cancer kids, “money for candy,” as she puts it). “This government has no soul,” she sighs, before asking if her tummy looks big on the documentary cameras.

Critics will say it’s that very plundering — and the active entrenchment of corruption at all levels of society under Marcos — that sent the Philippines tumbling from being a rising star of Asia in the ’60s to the “sick man of Asia” by the 1990s. How many billions went missing? Hard to say, and Greenfield doesn’t really bother tabulating. Suffice to say, an offhand anecdote Imelda tells of smuggling diamonds out of the country when forced into exile by stashing them inside a pack of diapers (“money to pay for our defense lawyers”) is reeled off with very little regard of how it sounds. In fact it’s told with a chuckle, like it’s just pocket money, which goes far in proving how, for Imelda, perception is reality and truth is… well, sometimes an ugly, inconsequential thing.

Greenfield has a somewhat metaphorical mission in taking us to Calauit, the island animal preserve populated with zebras and giraffes that Imelda and Ferdinand apparently “ordered up” from Kenya with briefcases of money. Unfortunately, African animals don’t do so well out of the wild without expert supervision, so these animals began inbreeding — leading the giraffes, apparently, to lose strength in their necks (you see them awkwardly feeding on the grass rather than dining on tree leaves). The animals’ arrival doesn’t exactly make 254 native Calauit families happy either, as they’re told to scram by Marcos troops; no wonder then that, when allowed to return to their homes under Cory, they started poaching the zebras and giraffes.

That inbreeding, of course, is a metaphor for the unnatural condition of political dynasties in the Philippines. By the time of Rodrigo Duterte’s run, we’re told, the ascension of Bongbong Marcos as vice president is almost signed, sealed and delivered. Rody’s dad, of course, was in the Marcos cabinet during “his first term” (important to qualify that, apparently). There’s a certain symmetry to seeing Bongbong — a faint, faint echo of Ferdinand — standing next to his mom on a political stage, or seeing Imee Marcos imprudently hailed in the audience by candidate Duterte, who thanks her for “donating” to his campaign. (The Marcoses, of course, deny this. Will probably do so until the end of time.)

The important point of The Kingmaker is that the Marcoses have learned the same lesson that scoundrels always cling to: never admit any wrongdoing, and eventually people will grow nostalgic for your brand of patriotism. “A gun can only kill you up to the grave,” Imelda muses at one point, “but the media can kill you into eternity.” So step one is massaging the press — and the people — until they don’t bother studying history anymore, or can’t tell truth from fiction. (It’s a playbook that Trump borrows from every day.) One concrete move in that direction was Duterte blithely ordering the burial of Ferdinand’s remains in the Heroes’ Cemetery, despite decades of protest against such a move. 

Step two is manipulating the levers of (what passes for) democracy, as some say Duterte has done, effectively swinging the courts and the congress to your own ends. (Again, it’s Trump’s playbook for 2020.) Duterte says he’d be happy to resign if Bongbong wins his electoral protest. (He can’t abide VP Leni Robredo taking his seat at Malacañang.) So the wheels on the bus, indeed, go round and round.
Against this backdrop, we are reminded by surviving activists and victims of the 3,257 deaths and 35,000 tortured under martial law, and the peculiar methods of abuse inflicted by Marcos goons, such as electric shock, vaginal penetration (“to look for secret papers,” as one victim recalls being told) and the “San Juanico Bridge,” in which a man is forcibly suspended between two pulled-apart beds until he collapses, over and over again (the San Juanico Bridge, ironically, was the “Bridge of Love” built by Ferdinand for Imelda connecting Samar and Leyte).

But none of this is of much interest to the former first lady, now 90, as she prepares for the final restoration of the Marcos name. History, despite what they say, isn’t always written by the winners. Often it’s written by the apologists.

“We should forget the past,” gripes Imelda. “It’s not even the past; it’s no longer there.”

No, Mrs. Marcos, we should not. And we can’t.

* * *

Follow @scottgarceau on Instagram and visit x-patfiles.com.

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