It always began and ended with the shoes. Specifically, the 1,220 pairs of pumps that were found in the closet of Imelda Marcos, when she and her husband Ferdinand Marcos were forced to flee the country in 1986. It made the Philippines’ former First Lady the punchline of late-night talk show monologues and reduced her to a kitschy bit of ’80s pop nostalgia, nestled between Dr. Ruth and Hands Across America. The now–90-year-old could recall the agony of losing her mother when she was eight and the ecstasy of being crowned Miss Manila in her early twenties. She might talk your ear off about Ferdinand, about how he proposed to her 20 minutes after they met (and married her 11 days later) and why the country was so great when her husband ruled. Or she might regale you with tales of her life as a political figurehead, someone who danced with Henry Kissinger, counted the Reagans as friends and had the ear of Chairman Mao, Colonel Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein.
Still, if you’re an American, the name Imelda is synonymous with little else except, “My god, so many shoes!”
Ask a citizen of the Philippines about her, however, and size 8 1/2 Ferragamos would be the last thing they’d mention in regards to the controversial figure. If The Kingmaker does nothing else, it reminds you of the rest of Ms. Marcos’ story, the good and the bad and the very, very ugly aspects of all of it. No stranger to the rich and infamously gauche — see: her 2012 doc The Queen of Versailles — Lauren Greenfield starts off her portrait by following the matronly woman around Manila circa 2014, as she makes public appearances and tours a children’s cancer ward. (She liberally hands out money to the underage patients “for candy.”) Interviewing her in an apartment that might best be described as Upper West Side Disgraced Despot Chic, the filmmaker initially lets the subject verbally print the legend and play the victim. We did nothing wrong. I was the mother of my nation, and then the world. I ended the cold war in five minutes. Everyone loves me. They need me. Why do so many people hate me?
The Fog of War this is not, and those expecting a Marcos mea culpa will find themselves having conniption fits. Folks familiar with Greenfield’s past work, which can sometimes feel like it’s a little too content to wade in the shallow side, couldn’t be blamed for wondering if this is merely an excuse to photograph the intersection where wealth meets camp. And even casual viewers might wonder where, exactly, this is going.
At which part Greenfield slowly starts to throw some counterpoints into the narrative. It begins with a few old friends of Imelda, who contradict the life-was-peachy claim with reminders that Ferdinand was not particularly faithful to her. Then some residents of Calauit Island detail how they were kicked out of their homes so that Imelda could turn the whole thing into a personal zoo for a menagerie of animals she had imported from Kenya after a safari. Relatives of Benigno Aquino, the rival politician who was jailed by the President and was sent to the U.S. by Imelda for health reasons, get a chance to speak; “Ninoy” was assassinated at the airport upon his return to the Philippines, with many believing the Marcos were personally responsible for his still-unsolved killing. Andy Bautista, the ex-Chairman on the Commission of Elections, weighs in the estimated $5-10 billion the regime plundered, and about Imelda hiding Picasso paintings after he return to avoid them being seized.
By the time The Kingmaker is cross-cutting between her son Bongbong Marcos campaigning for the Vice-President post in 2016 — a move that would have paved the way for the family’s return to political power — and victims of Ferdinand Marcos’ 1972 declaration of martial law discussing how they were systematically tortured, an entirely different picture of Imelda has emerged. You see a discipline in Greenfield’s filmmaking and muckraking that you didn’t before, as well a sense of rage. And you understand how, behind the grandmotherly smiles and displays of generosity, Imelda is the sort of woman who can say, “Perception is real, and truth is not” without a stitch of irony. Forget the Manolo Blahniks. Keep your eyes on the Machiavellian person who wore them.
“The past is the past,” she keeps insisting, even as she uses it to secure a legacy and try to create an ongoing political dynasty. The Kingmaker reminds you that it never goes away, it’s never done with you and a lot of it can never be forgotten, lest we all be doomed to repeat it. History is written by the victors, but it’s constantly be rewritten by those who have no problem utilizing power, corruption and lies to serve their own needs. The film concludes with her plotting yet another phoenix-like rise, and stories of the family bankrolling President Rodrigo Duterte, the country’s strongman dictator and Marcos ally. The notion that Imelda and and her clan will keep reaching for the shiniest brass ring by any means necessary feels inevitable. It’s a documentary that starts as a nonfiction portrait and ends as a horror movie.