TIFF: Director Lauren Greenfield Screens 'The Kingmaker' on 'Complex' Former Philippine First Lady Imelda Marcos
Greenfield says she originally viewed Imelda as an 'empress dowager,' but came to see her as a shrewd politician: 'There's still people who just adore her'
The shoes. That's what people remember about former Philippines First Lady Imelda Marcos. All those pumps, heels, flats and, who knows, maybe the odd pair of sneakers that she piled into the Malacañang Palace. All left behind when she and her husband, President Ferdinand Marcos, fled the Philippines with barely enough time to pack a set of mules.
Her exodus sans chaussures took place in 1986 after the People Power Revolution ousted President Marcos, who had held power for decades. Most Americans probably think the story more or less ended there, or certainly with the death of Ferdinand Marcos in 1989. But Lauren Greenfield's new documentary The Kingmaker makes it clear there's been a lengthy second act for Imelda Marcos in which she has continued to influence politics in her homeland.
As the project progressed, it became clear she was interested in getting back into power for her family.
"I was just so fascinated by her comeback story, really," Greenfield explains, "after the things we all remembered, which was fleeing the Philippines and leaving in the palace 3,000 pairs of shoes. So I wanted to go over and see what had become of her."
The Kingmaker held its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival, then crossed the Atlantic for the Telluride Film Festival, before heading north to the Toronto International Film Festival. It screens at TIFF later today (Wednesday, 9/11) at the Scotiabank Theatre and tomorrow evening at the same venue.
Greenfield has examined wealth, hedonism and conspicuous consumption in her work as a photographer and in the documentary films Generation Wealth (2018) and The Queen of Versailles (2012). That background made her ideally suited to document Imelda, who lived in high style while Ferdinand was in office. The couple was suspected of making off with untold sums when they ducked out of the Philippines.
"That was kind of my entry point was having looked at wealth for a long time and in both my films and photography and Marie Antoinette characters like Jackie Siegel in The Queen of Versailles," Greenfield tells Nonfictionfilm.com. "In a way, that's what drew me to her first. But the story and the character that I found was much more complex and much more about power."
Imelda was allowed to return to the Philippines after her husband's death in Hawaii. After coming home she won election to the Philippine congress multiple times.
"That's what's really interesting to me, that she could be thrown out of the country and people all over the world kind of had consensus on them [Ferdinand and Imelda] stealing 5 to $10 billion from the country," the director comments. "And yet when you go into the slums or the countryside, there's still people who just adore her. And actually, from some all different classes."
Imelda, who turned 90 in July, ran for president a couple of times herself, and also backed her son Bongbong's political aspirations.
"I called the story The Kingmaker after I read the definition of kingmaker... It said, 'Somebody who has a great influence on a political dynasty or a candidate without being a viable candidate themselves.' And I think that's Imelda's story," Greenfield observes. "She's an incredible politician. Her son says she's the best politician in the family, including his father. And yet she isn't and never has been a viable [presidential] candidate."
Greenfield says she began filming with Imelda Marcos in 2014.
"The story really changed" over time, the director notes. "When I began the project I thought of her more as this empress dowager. And as the project progressed, it became clear she was interested in getting back into power for her family... That started to become a reality even though it seemed like nothing like that could happen when I began."
The Philippines currently is ruled by Rodrigo Duterte, who bears some resemblance to Ferdinand Marcos in his 'strongman' instincts.
"By the end of filming, with Duterte becoming elected, it was really history coming full circle," Greenfield says, "and kind of a cautionary tale about how easy it is to go back to something like dictatorship and really the fragility of democracy, that we're one election away from losing the values that we think synonymous with our way of living. But I think what's happened in the Philippines and what happens in The Kingmaker story [connects to] the kind of rise of authoritarianism in Europe and the Trumpian era."
The Kingmaker will be released in theaters November 1 and will later make its broadcast debut on Showtime. It screens this Thursday (September 12) at the Camden International Film Festival in Maine. Upcoming film festival screenings include Mill Valley in San Rafael, California (October 4 and 6) and BFI London (October 7 and 9).
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.