More than 30 years after she and her husband fled in disgrace from their palace in Manila into exile, former Philippine first lady Imelda Marcos has been waging an effort to return her family — associated with murder and plunder — to power. The gripping documentary “The Kingmaker,” opening Friday at the Embarcadero in San Francisco, looks at her methods, which involve rewriting history, and at how they could destroy democracy in her country.
Director Lauren Greenfield, whose credits include “Queen of Versailles,” again explores people’s obsession with wealth. Politics and power also are in the mix here. Greenfield combines archival footage, talking heads and interview segments featuring the now 90-year-old Imelda Marcos, to whom she’s gained impressive access.
Imelda and Ferdinand Marcos met in 1954 — she was a beauty queen, he was a rising politician — and married 11 days later. The two formed a powerful partnership.
The Marcos regime (1965-1986) included nine years of martial law, a time of brutal human-rights violations. The couple also were accused of stealing up to $10 billion from the Philippine people.
Greenfield also covers the assassination of opposition figure Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr., the presidency of Corazon Aquino and the Marcoses’ departure, after protesters stormed the palace, for Hawaii.
Greenfield doesn’t ask Imelda many tough questions.
But while sometimes presented sympathetically, Imelda says egregious and clueless things that capture something about her. The poverty she encounters when handing out money to children in Manila didn’t exist in her day, she says — a statement hard to buy. She describes the martial-law period as a time of freedom. “They found no skeletons,” just “beautiful shoes,” she says, of those who looted the palace.
She presents herself as a caring mother figure.
Uninterested in her subject’s famed shoe overload, Greenfield focuses on deeper truths. These include harrowing recollections offered by former activists who describe being tortured by the regime.
The most enlightening material comes in the final act, in which Imelda is preparing her son, nicknamed Bongbong — a man who displays no noteworthy vision or intellect — for a vice-presidential run (the presidency comes next, naturally). Bongbong is nearly victorious, thanks to Imelda’s skill at casting the tainted Marcos name in a rosy light. The current strongman president, Rodrigo Duterte — whose own murderous regime is the subject of a horrific passage — provides crucial support.
“Perception is real, and the truth is not,” Imelda says, and acting on that belief, which also played out in our own 2016 elections, she sets a viable stage for a future Marcos comeback.
The film also features Imelda Marcos’ New York racketeering trial; Imelda touting her visits with foreign leaders ranging from Mao to Gaddafi; Ferdinand’s infidelities; and the Marcoses’ debacle of an animal park created on Calauit Island.
This is a scary documentary that illustrates how a country could easily shift from a democracy to a dictatorship.
Starring: Imelda Marcos, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., Imee Marcos, Rodrigo Duterte
Directed by: Lauren Greenfield
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Note: Greenfield is slated to speak at the 7:15 p.m. Friday screening at the Embarcadero.