Filmmaker Lauren Greenfield is used to working with subjects of a certain scale. Her 2012 documentary Queen of Versailles chronicles the building of what would be the country’s largest residential estate and the couple, a timeshare mogul and his wife, building it. It’s a film about a lot of things, not the least among them greed, ego, perspective and yes, scale.
So it should come as no surprise that her latest, The Kingmaker, is another film about something quite grand in its own right: a political dynasty and the woman responsible for it. Documentaries that focus on a single person—their life and their legacy—can of course unfold in any number of ways, starting with whether or not the subject is willing (and/or able) to participate in the making of the film. Greenfield strikes gold here, as Imelda Marcos, the former First Lady of the Philippines and the focus of the film, not only participates, but offers the filmmaker a fairly astonishing level of access. The result is one of the most compelling documentaries of the year, as Marcos, in her late 80s during filming (she turned 90 in July), holds court recounting her late husband’s administration, its lasting impact (for better or worse) on the country, and her hand in it all.
Some time at the beginning of her time in the public eye, Marcos began wearing dresses with a certain style of sleeve, a pouffed-up shoulder that’s glamorous but somehow also militant, as it comes to a crisp, severe crease at the top. To this day, it’s all she wears—just look at the poster art for the film. The sleeve is iconic, and also a bit of a good fit for Marcos herself, as flashy as she is harsh. Several times, we see Marcos literally handing out money—through the car window to random people on the street, or to patients she’s visiting at the hospital. It’s a natural state of performance for Marcos, who rose to global fame when her husband was in office, traveling around the world to meet with leaders and celebrities alike in a swirl of media coverage. She did the traveling, we learn, because the President couldn’t leave the country in case a coup rose up in his absence to depose him.
And so it becomes clear that this is far from a superficial profile of a noteworthy woman in the sunset of her eventful life. Instead, Marcos and her adult children, themselves serving in government to varying degrees today, become just one storyline in a complicated and complex national history where decisions made by leaders decades ago continue to have an impact on the everyday lives of its citizens today. Greenfield zooms out just far enough, putting Mrs. Marcos’s story into a stark perspective that includes political rivals, activists and victims of the government’s bad practices. Interviews with those who opposed the government then (and still do today) are all the more gut-wrenching given their place next to Marcos’s willful ignorance about her own role in any of it. Credit to Greenfield’s editor, Per K. Kirkegaard; more than once, the film juxtaposes their stories alongside shots of Marcos looking entirely unaffected by any of it.
And in fact, that ability to just ignore, deny or explain away any minute criticism or major government investigation may just be the slippery secret to Marcos’s longevity. Time and again, she and her family find themselves the subject of inquiry or political debate, and time and again they manage to squirm out of any of it in ways that are as dubious as they are impressive. Today, the Philippines is governed by a man who thinks it’s OK to shoot drug dealers dead in the street; one can’t help but wonder, after experiencing The Kingmaker, how much of what’s happening today was set in motion during the Marcos administration. To that end, it’s a film that’s as much an exploration of unchecked ego and entitlement as it is a crucial historical record.
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