In The Kingmaker, Imelda Marcos Is Absolutely, Utterly Mad
Imelda Marcos is a fascinating figure. She’s larger than life, regal, and so remarkably ostentatious and grandiose that she seems almost unreal. If she were a character in a book, Imelda might be considered too exaggerated and caricaturish; surely, no real person could be as excessive, right? But as filmmaker Lauren Greenfield shows us in her newest documentary, The Kingmaker, Imelda Marcos is very, very real. She’s so dangerously real that her very existence threatens all that we believe to be true. “Perception is real,” Imelda proclaims in one pivotal scene, “the truth is not.”
Over the course of 100 minutes, The Kingmaker lets us peek behind the curtain, unraveling one family’s efforts to rewrite our history and control the narrative. And Imelda, former First Lady and matriarch of one of the country’s richest and most powerful families, is one hell of a narrator. As the film opens with her handing out P20 bills to beggars on the street, she laments the decline of Manila, her heart aching for the poor and downtrodden. Manila didn’t use to be like this, she says, not during her time. The history books and poverty indices belie that claim, of course, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that Imelda herself believes it. And it becomes real.
Perhaps no other family in Philippine history has managed to reinvent itself such that it can recover from one of the most staggering political and historical defeats. In 1986, during the EDSA revolution, as an angry mob threatened to topple the walls of Malacañang, the Marcoses were whisked away by an American chopper, almost certainly saving them from being lynched. “We were kidnapped,” recounts Imelda, “they told us they were taking us to Paoay in Ilocos.” As she tells it, it was a complete surprise to alight from the helicopter in Hawaii. Surely Imelda knew the difference. But you would never guess it because, in her mind, they had been abducted against their will. And so it becomes real.
This is how Imelda thinks. If she believes in it, it becomes reality. It is a powerful force, palpable even through the screen, a ferocity of will that shapes the world around her. As Imelda tells her stories, she’s so thoroughly convinced of their veracity that it becomes reality. Imelda narrates from how she was orphaned at an early age to becoming the “Muse of Manila” and catching the eye of Ferdinand Marcos. She tells of all her sorties, of meeting world leaders in her husband’s stead, a presidential surrogate of sorts, and successfully charming even the most terrible of them. Muammar Gaddafi, Mao Zedong, Saddam Hussein... all very nice but misunderstood people, she says, convinced that a woman’s charms yield far better results than the clumsiness of men.
And yet she pins her hopes on a man, her only son, with whom she can’t hide her disappointment. She mentions that her husband became President at the age of 48 and unhelpfully, with a shrug, notes that Bongbong is past 50 (he’s now 62). In planning their ascendancy, mother and son (as well as an undoubtedly large number of political advisers) gauge their chances for the 2016 election but decide to play it safe. Bongbong has a bigger chance of winning the vice presidency, they admit, and so a plan is hatched to run for the second-highest office in the land as a shortcut to the real endgame.
Throughout the film, the Marcoses reveal more about themselves than they probably would have liked. Their wealth is staggering. Holding wads of cash and giving them away to the poor is second nature to Imelda. The P20 bills in the opening scene was merely an appetizer for later scenes where Imelda would ask her assistant to pull out stacks of P1,000 bills to hand out. In a visit to the cancer ward of the Philippine Children’s Medical Center, moved by pity for the patients, Imelda dispensed P1,000 bills to the children, telling them, “bumili ka ng kendi (buy yourself some candy).” Who gives P1,000 to cancer patients as candy money? Only Imelda.
In a short segment, Sandro Marcos, Bongbong’s son, proudly recounts how his dad wanted to pursue the sciences but the elder Ferdinand dissuaded him, saying, “there’s no money in that.” And so Bongbong entered politics. Sandro was completely oblivious to his damning revelation, which is probably expected from someone who shaded two boxes on his presidential ballot in 2016. Clearly, the real money is in politics. Ferdinand knew that, Bongbong knew that, Sandro knew that, and now we all know it, too. In the most unintentionally hilarious scene, Imelda dramatizes how she was orphaned, saying, “when I lost my money, I lost everything,” before quickly correcting her Freudian slip to “mother.”
The film, in passing, goes over some of the properties the Marcoses purchased in the United States and Imelda’s unabated spending. Millions of dollars worth of real estate, jewelry, art, and of course, thousands of pairs of shoes. In one scene, during a party, Imelda unironically invites people to eat her shoes as she hands out cupcakes with tiny fondant shoes on top. It has become a joke for her because in her mind there’s absolutely nothing wrong with owning 3,000 pairs of expensive shoes.
At the height of their extravagance, the Marcoses decided to bring animals from Africa to the Philippines for their own personal amusement. From zebras to ibexes to giraffes, wild animals were corralled and shipped to Calauit island, a place Imelda describes as uninhabited save for a few people whom she convinced to move. In truth, several hundred families were displaced to make room for the animals, a fact that natives interviewed for the film never forgot. They spoke with so much disdain for Imelda and the animals, which had over the past decades inbred to the point of deformity, a sad parable of excess and folly.
Filipinos have absolutely no concept of how ridiculously rich the Marcoses are because it’s a number too big to even consider. Most Filipinos, thrilled to win a few thousand pesos on noontime television, are simply unequipped to fathom billions and billions of pesos. A million pesos is a reasonable number. It’s the prize for Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Many Filipinos dream of winning that game show and think of buying a house. Many don’t realize that a million pesos isn’t very big at all, so that when former chief justice Sereno revealed herself as having millions of pesos, it seemed like a big number. A bad number.
But billions? It isn’t real. Most people can’t wrap their heads around that sort of wealth. The Philippine Supreme Court estimated that the Marcoses had amassed an estimated $5 to 10 billion during Ferdinand Marcos’ 21-year tenure. In a country where the minimum wage is a little under $10 a day and where nearly half the population doesn’t make half of that, billions of dollars is an imaginary number. This is why the Marcoses’ ill-gotten wealth is difficult for many to believe.
There lies Imelda’s power. For the greater part of the last two decades, Imelda and her family have slowly woven a narrative that’s easy to believe. She describes martial law as halcyon days when Filipinos had, “sovereignty, human rights, and freedom.” It’s a blatant untruth that manifests into reality in the minds of people either too young to remember or people too distanced from the horrors to believe it. This statement clashes directly with interviews of martial law survivors Pete Lacaba, Etta Rosales, and May Rodriguez. The latter’s account of sexual assault while in detention is so disturbing, so viscerally offensive, that it underscores the absolute madness of anyone who would claim that martial law was a time of happiness and peace.
That is Imelda in a nutshell: absolutely, utterly mad. But in that madness is a terrifying method. As Greenfield explains, the only one more powerful than the king is the kingmaker. Bongbong’s demeanor and his dogged refusal to concede defeat reveal that the presidential ambition isn’t his; it was always merely the means to an end. A Marcos ascending to the presidency would be the ultimate vindication for a family so utterly humiliated on the world stage. Reality is what we make it, according to one quote, but The Kingmaker shows us that if we don’t remain vigilant, reality is what Imelda Marcos wants it to be.