One of the best and most enraging documentaries I’ve seen all year is “The Kingmaker,” Lauren Greenfield’s explosive portrait of Imelda Marcos, former First Lady of the Philippines. Though she gained worldwide notoriety for her obscene number of shoes, Marcos’ ambition extends far beyond filling her closet. Greenfield’s previous seriocomic pictures exploring the pathology of billionaires, 2012’s “The Queen of Versailles” and 2018’s “Generation Wealth,” would seem to make her an ideal fit for this material, yet “The Kingmaker” takes her muckraking artistry to new levels of urgency and audacity, as it charts how Marcos and her husband Ferdinand plundered billions of dollars from their own country.
After being driven into exile by the subsequent backlash and election of Cory Aquino (widow of assassinated Marcos critic, Senator Benigno Aquino Jr.) in 1986, the Marcoses are currently reclaiming their power, thanks to the candidacy of her son Bongbong—who contested his loss for Vice President—and his ties to the nation’s grotesquely Trumpian leader, Rodrigo Duterte. When she was still First Lady, Marcos blackmailed her adulterous husband into funding such thoughtless purchases as a private zoo on the small island of Calauit, requiring the eviction of 254 families from their homes in favor of African animals (who are shipped over and subsequently abandoned), a fitting metaphor for her self-serving “leadership.”
Prior to the documentary’s premiere at the Chicago International Film Festival, I got the chance to speak not only with Greenfield, but one of her most crucial subjects, Andrés “Andy” Bautista. He served as Chair of the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG), where he recovered approximately $1.5 billion of the Marcos’ ill-gotten wealth, before becoming the Philippines’ Chair of the Commission on Elections for the country’s 2016 national elections, regarded as the best in its history (of course, Bongbong would tell you otherwise).
How did this collaboration between the two of you inform the film?
Lauren Greenfield (LG): I sought out Andy because he was the head of the PCGG, which was responsible for going after the Marcos’ wealth. Part of the movie takes the form of a “follow the money” story, since it was the money that Imelda and her husband illegally amassed that enabled her family to come back to power. I sought out Andy in the beginning for the historical information detailing what they had taken from the country and his efforts to repatriate it. One of the first big surprises occurred when authorities raided their home for the famous paintings they had acquired with embezzled state funds. The story for this film, which I initially thought would be set prior to 1986, suddenly stormed into the present as the impending election started dredging up all these people from the past.
Andy Bautista (AB): There was a vacancy in the Commission on Elections in 2015, and all of a sudden, I was asked if I wanted to take the job. I saw it as a new challenge.
LG: Andy’s story is really three acts that tell the story of the film. He starts with the Aquino government in power going after the Marcos family. He is then head of elections in the second act, and by the third act, he’s in exile.
AB: The funny part of the story is that when Bill Mellor, Lauren’s consulting producer in Asia, called me in 2018, I was in Oklahoma and to be honest, I had forgotten that they had interviewed me. I had been very transparent, and may have not been fully aware of what I was getting into. Yet Lauren and I share the same goal with this film, which is simply to tell the truth, and that’s a good cause. For us, it is a continuing saga.
Were you at all familiar with Lauren’s work before you began this project?
AB: Yes, and I knew this project would be different. It is still about wealth, in a sense, but it’s also political wealth, which may be a new topic for her. It is certainly interconnected.
I love how you utilize wide angles, showing how the objects surrounding us convey what we fail to articulate.
LG: I came to filmmaking through photography, and there is a tradition of what Arnold Newman coined “the environmental portrait,” in which what you see around the subject tells you as much about the subject as their face does. I’ve tried to bring that into my filmmaking, where what you see in the background of the interview tells us as much about the subject as what they said. Their nonverbal communication also speaks volumes, whether it’s through a look or the movement of their hands. There’s an editor, Mary Lampson, whom I’ve learned a lot from. She served as a consultant on my last couple of films, and she really taught me to use the interview as vérité. It’s not just about what’s being said.
In “Queen of Versailles,” there is a kind of progression the film goes through. It starts with the throne in a gilded room, and it ends on a wooden chair in the dark. With Imelda, the paintings and the gilded objects around her—the ornateness, her dress, the makeup people, her servants—contrast sharply with the truth-tellers such as human rights activists Etta Rosales and May Rodriguez, who are the survivors of torture. They provide pure unadulterated testimonies without any embellishment, while seated in front of very simple backgrounds. It solidifies, in the film, that narrative of the visual between the illusion and pretense of wealth versus the truth.
Your lens also lingers on people who would normally go unnoticed, such as the servant picking up the shards of the framed picture that Imelda accidentally smashed, a fitting metaphor for how she leaves messes for underlings—like the island inhabitants—to clean up.
LG: I was blown away when I first went to the island. I felt like it was so symbolic. It resembled the ruins of a place that had been hit by war. There was an old generator trailer that the US government had left, and everything was in complete disrepair. You felt as if you had gone back in time. A whole group of people were living on the safari, taking care of the animals in addition to all of the indigenous people who had finally come back after having been evicted, living amidst African animals and the wreckage of the past. The animals were all effected by four generations of inbreeding, and it evoked a feeling of doom. For me, the island serves as a kind of metaphor for what happened to the Filipino people after five to ten billion dollars was stolen by a corrupt government.
According to VICE, our president was recently quoted congratulating Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte for his “unbelievable job on the drug problem,” in which his government allegedly killed over 20,000 citizens in cold blood, an atrocity your film unflinchingly depicts.
LG: In that scene you mentioned involving the framed photos, Imelda talks about her friends Chairman Mao and Saddam Hussein and Gaddafi, who are widely considered monsters, but she said they were actually kind and generous—to her! We see that with our current president, who looks to these tyrants as strong men he admires and has a kind of friendship with.
AB: Birds of the same feather, as they say, and they’re not found only in the US or the Philippines. A lot of countries now are all veering towards the right with the same playbook of stifling journalists—harassing, intimidating, killing, trying to propagate fake news…
In her Brazil-set documentary “The Edge of Democracy,” Petra Costa also did an excellent job of showing how our instant gratification culture and the rise of misinformation has led to the 2016 election of entitled bullies like Trump, Duterte and—in the case of her movie—Bolsonaro.
AB: As far as the Marcoses are concerned, their main engine has been the fact that they still have a lot of resources. People underestimated them. They didn’t think that the family could stage a comeback, and yet the Marcoses were working behind the scenes, with social media. They really found their platform in the form of online misinformation, while getting advice from the Cambridge Analytica people.
LG: It’s almost like voters in the Philippines felt they were being kind in letting an old woman come back to her home country without realizing her agency in terms of being able to stage a comeback.
What wisdom can you impart on Americans in terms of how to run an honest, uncorrupted national election free of foreign interference?
AB: Transparency is the key. I still think that the American election system continues to be the gold standard, though there might be some kinks in certain states. I think people should be encouraged to vote, and that the election should occur on a national holiday, which is how it is in the Philippines. I don’t think that you have issues here of vote buying…
LG: We don’t have vote buying, we have voter suppression.
AB: Well, in the Philippines, you have both. What’s good about the American system is that the media is free to report on and is provided access to what’s really happening, so you can’t play too many games. I was here during the November 2016 elections in Washington as an observer, and to be honest, on the morning of the elections, we went around to Virginia and Maryland, and people were saying, “Hillary Clinton is going to win.” All of a sudden, the results came in and it was a shock, but not to those who had studied the system. The Republicans knew which states they were going to target in order to win the Electoral College, and I think that is a lesson for the next elections. You’ve gotta do your math. Make America Think Again!
I’m curious what led Imelda Marcos to say on camera, “Perception is real, and the truth is not.” It’s as defining a line for our current era as the myth of “alternative facts.”
LG: Imelda complains a lot about how she was treated by the press in 1986 during her family’s exile, and how there were 16 international PR firms that went against the Marcoses. I think that is part of why she wants to tell her own rewriting of history, as well as participate in a film. She truly knows the power of the media, and has learned how to go about propagating her own reality, so in a way, she’s very brilliant by saying that. I think that we have all underestimated her, not just the Filipino people. Imelda has another amazing line where she says, “The gun can only kill you up to the grave, but the media can hurt you to infinity and beyond.”
Did you get the sense that she really has convinced herself that she is a mother figure to the world?
LG: I think she has convinced herself and believed her own story as she was telling it. On the other hand, it may also be a survival mechanism that enables her not to hold herself accountable for all these terrible things. It’s hard to know whether it’s a story that’s also convenient for their comeback, because I think that there is a conscious effort, particularly on the part of the children, to avoid criticizing the implementation of martial law. Both Marcos children were western-educated. In his first interview with me, Bongbong even admitted that he had some issues with martial law, which he confronted his dad about, but his dad convinced him otherwise.
They’ve made the decision to justify the harm of martial law because if they admit to any wrongdoing, if they say “sorry” for anything, that’s not going to be good for them, so they lean into the story they’ve created. This tendency is very Trumpian—never saying sorry, never saying anything is wrong, just leaning into “everything was the best choice.” When she talks about her friendship with Chairman Mao, one of the things she said that I wasn’t able to include in the film is that she took credit for the Cultural Revolution in his country. She insisted that she gave Mao the idea, and that it was the best thing ever to happen to China.
Composer Jocelyn Pook, who scored “Eyes Wide Shut,” creates a hypnotic tone for “The Kingmaker” that is evocative of “Fog of War,” mirroring the circular nature of history as it threatens to repeat itself.
LG: I’m so glad you mentioned Jocelyn! She is such a brilliant composer, and I just fell in love with her music. She had composed a piece entitled “Requiem for a Queen” that she had written well before we had met, but it had never been used in anything, and that ended up being the theme which she adapted for the film. We kept bringing it back in new arrangements. Jocelyn also did the music for “The Wife,” which I saw after I was already way into making this film, and there’s one moment where Glenn Close says, “I’m a kingmaker.” It just reaffirmed for me how meeting Jocelyn was like fate because her music is so perfect for this film. She had such an emotional understanding of Imelda as a character, as well as the corruption of royalty, and the epic scale of the story. There are Shakespearean elements in the relationship between the Marcoses and the Aquinos, and I think Jocelyn’s score gives it both grandeur and tragedy.
Will this film be shown in the Philippines?
LG: I mean, we would love for it to be shown there…
AB: It will be shown in some form, especially because of social media. You can’t really just prohibit something from being seen. In fact, censoring the film might backfire because it will only make more people want to watch it. When the trailer was released, it went viral in the Philippines. The problem with a bootlegged copy of the film will be that its grainy picture quality will prevent viewers from appreciating the nuances that you were just mentioning. This film is best experienced on a big screen, and if you mess up the quality of the print, that can also impact how the audience is going to relate to it. It’s very important that it is presented in the right way.
LG: The Duterte government sent a senator, Leila de Lima, to jail for three years on an accusation of drug charges, but really, it was because she was a human rights activist who criticized the street killings. She’s been incarcerated for two years now, and she posted the “Kingmaker” trailer from prison.
What sections of the film were cinematographers Shana Hagan and Lars Skree respectively in charge of lensing?
LG: There was a real difference between the interviews and the vérité. For the beginning of the film—with Imelda and all of the paintings and the gold around her—I worked with Shana Hagan, who I had worked with on “Queen of Versailles.” She’s very sensitive about keeping a sense of my photography in her camera, and trying to bring in elements of my own vision as a visual artist. We shot with two cameras so that we could capture those “off moments,” the nonverbal details, and then also be a fly on the wall with the vérité, just trying to capture the little moments like the frame breaking and the servants around Imelda.
With Lars Skree, we were following a crazy, chaotic election, so it consisted of physical work, requiring the photojournalism skills necessary for being in the scrum. The access was amazing in the Philippines because they don’t have the same kind of barriers to political candidates that we do, so you can get right in there. At the same time, you’re in there with fifty other Filipino press members, and Lars—who’s the wonderful Danish cinematographer who shot “The Act of Killing” and “The Look of Silence”—is a very tall man. That was an advantage in covering the Filipino election and just being able to physically stay with the scrum. The animal island had very tough shooting conditions in terms of no electricity—
AB: Another metaphor for the Philippines.
LG: We did some drone photography, though I have mixed feelings about drones because they are incredibly overused. So we tried to use them judiciously in capturing the landscape, especially the animal island, and how it was like a paradise lost. Then we contrasted that with the streets of Manilla. Inequality was a big theme in this story, and you can see the two worlds in the interviews—the gilded, gold, art-directed world of Imelda Marcos and then the raw, uncorrupted world populated by the victims of Martial Law and truth-tellers like Andy Bautista.
AB: Imelda Marcos may have mounted a political comeback, but can she come back from this film?
Let’s hope not.