Imelda Marcos, former first lady of the Philippines and wife of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, seated in front of an original painting by Pablo Picasso and ones by other modern masters. These and other works of art are from the collection the dictator assembled years ago with money plundered from the Philippines government, estimated to be between $5 billion and $10 billion.
Our current political era seems characterized by a willingness of large groups of the population to believe fake news supported by “alternative” facts and false narratives. Such an environment can be treacherous because it allows dangerous politicians to rise to power by making almost any claim, no matter how untrue, as long as it strikes an emotional chord. It’s one reason political observers have referred to our present time as the “Post-Truth era.”
The 2019 documentary “The Kingmaker,” an ominously insightful film directed and written by photographer and filmmaker Lauren Greenfield, could be considered a powerful case study of Post-Truth-era politics. That’s because its primary subject is Imelda Marcos, the notorious former first lady of the Philippines and wife of the country’s former dictator, Ferdinand Marcos.
One scene in the film seems particularly symbolic: About three-quarters of the way through the documentary, Greenfield captures a scene where Imelda Marcos sits in a beautifully decorated room wearing a stunning red dress and looking quite regal, almost stately in her demeanor. For the first five seconds of the scene, the viewer sees Marcos simply sitting there silently. She looks out from where she’s seated with a thousand-yard stare, appearing as a 90-year-old sage witness to the tumultuous history of her country.
She then states, with all the sincerity and weight of history in her voice, “Perception is real, and the truth is not.”
Interviewing A Notorious Subject: Imelda Marcos
It’s not the only outrageous statement the former first lady makes in the film, and her behavior for making such surreal remarks seems to be the rule rather than the exception. But one has to wonder why she chose to be in the documentary?
Greenfield explains that part of the motivation to be in the documentary may have been that Marcos wanted to express her side of her story the way she wanted to. The results are some rather remarkable scenes, politically and socially speaking. “She loves to talk,” says Greenfield. “There was an interview where she talked for about three hours, and I barely got in a question.” After decades of being forgotten, Marcos seemed to appreciate any exposure she received in the media. “I think she was eager to have the attention,” says Greenfield.
Another reason Marcos may have been willing to be interviewed relates to her family history. She lost her mother when she was just 8 years old. “I think she really was marked by losing her own mother,” says Greenfield, “that’s important to her backstory as an orphan.” It’s also one of the reasons Marcos might be “so obsessed with the kind of mothering as a kind of philanthropic act of power,” says Greenfield. “She is addicted to this kind of love and attention of the people. And that’s probably what drove her to agree to do the movie…wanting that adoration.”
Greenfield admits that Imelda Marcos was a great subject to film, visually. “She was kind of a visual dream…She was a beauty queen, for one, and she still has this kind of statuesque, queen-like quality.”
Counterbalancing False Narratives
But in filming Marcos, Greenfield had to deal with the intrinsic problem of creating an entire film made up of footage of a notorious subject who creates false narrative, which is a depiction or characterization of events that is inaccurate. Focusing only on the former first lady of the Philippines could be a distinct danger, in that her perception of events would become the only point of view in the film, which could slant the overall story. That wasn’t Greenfield’s intent.
Knowing this, Greenfield included other voices in the film and spent a lot of time editing the project. “It was a two-year edit,” says Greenfield, “So I was working and reworking on the structure for a long time and trying to crack the narrative.”
An important aspect of the edit that helped was not making it a straight chronology. Instead, she followed the first part of the movie (which was mostly footage of Imelda Marcos) with interviews of those who were persecuted by the Marcos regime. Juxtaposing the footage of victims—including Pete Lacaba, a journalist; May Rodriguez, an activist; and Etta Rosales, a teacher and a former congresswomen in the Philippines—next to the comments of Imelda Marcos changed the character of her remarks from an out-of-touch, elderly former queen to a sinister Machiavellian political strategist!
At this point in the film, each victim speaks of the horrendous injustices they witnessed and were subjected to, including torture and sexual assault. Greenfield cuts back and forth between the stories each victim tells, allowing the narratives of injustice to echo and magnify each other. In doing so, Greenfield seems to make Rosales, Lacaba and Rodriguez the true moral center of the film.
Consider what Rosales talks about in the film: She begins by recalling that Ferdinand Marcos mobilized the military and the police “in order to perpetuate himself in power” and instituted martial law at this time. After getting involved in the resistance, Rosales was arrested and tortured. “The electric shocks—they were really painful,” Rosales says in the film, “they increased the voltage every time you lied to them.”
Another form of torture was named after a famous bridge Marcos had built in the Philippines, called San Juanico Bridge, which was also nicknamed The Bridge of Love. Under martial law, there was a form of torture called by the same name. Rosales says, “Isn’t it cynical, The Bridge of Love for one set of people becomes a method of torture for another set of people, the so-called ‘enemies of the state?’” During her imprisonment, she says, she was burned with a wax candle. “I was sexually molested by agents of the state,” Rosales recalls. Some of those who tortured Rosales were students of hers, she says, “who were planted in the schools to spy on us.” She then says, “My body was traumatized. I had no control over the tremors.”
And then she recalls, “The agents, they came to me, and they said, ‘Ma’am can we continue with the history classes?’” and she laughs. “So, what did I do? I taught them. I helped them. It helped me recover…”
The testimony of these three is heartbreaking, and stands in stark contrast and in full relief to the dreadfully surreal statements Imelda Marcos makes in the movie.
Inspired By Arnold Newman’s Environmental Portraits
There was one additional technique Greenfield used to compose the victims’ interviews. She employed very plain, simple lighting. Plus, Greenfield set up very simple backgrounds for the victims.
In contrast, you see a more sophisticated style of lighting with Imelda Marcos, which includes a very ornate background composed of original master paintings from throughout the centuries. (Investigators in the Philippines claim these were purchased with money Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos stole from the country just before they were ousted from power.)
Greenfield’s model for both in integrating the backgrounds with the portrait subject actually comes from photography. “I’ve always been influenced by Arnold Newman’s environmental portraits,” says Greenfield. She also felt it was important to carefully consider what was around the person she interviewed and integrate it into the visual tableaux behind each subject. In the interviews of Marcos, Greenfield tried to make that visual connection between the art that appears all around Imelda Marcos and the subject herself “because she is such a strong and manipulative subject.”
But that sophistication falls flat when you look at the power of the interviews of the victims. “The survivors of martial law—and with even the victims of the drug war,” says Greenfield, “have a very pared-down interview look. It was really just about the raw emotion and truth of the story, without embellishment. Nobody’s wearing makeup.”
Exploring Common Themes
Greenfield’s focus on political themes in “The Kingmaker” seems like a departure her earlier documentary films and photography projects. Movies like “The Queen of Versailles” and her 2017 retrospective photography monograph “Generation Wealth” (which is also a fine-art exhibition and documentary film) appear to primarily focus on the cultural aspects of money and wealth. But Greenfield says the film relates to her past work in other important ways. “It connects to my work in ‘Generation Wealth’…in looking at inequality, wealth, consumerism and materialism and our kind of addiction to accumulating things. Marcos and her 3,000 shoes was always a kind of iconic reference in my mind. I never dreamed I would actually get to meet her, let alone photograph her.”
It was a surprise to many, including Greenfield, that Marcos was not just allowed to return to the country she fled in disgrace but also become a congresswoman there…even with the knowledge that she had stolen $5 billion to $10 billion when leaving the country in 1986. There were other surprises, as well, during the filming of this project. “I think another surprise was her candor. How she would [speak about things] like spending the diamonds on the lawyers or that she had her money in 170 banks” around the world.
Greenfield also had to adjust her overall sense of the story, which was another surprise. “I thought it was going to be a symbolic story,” says Greenfield. “But it actually became a comeback story, and it forced me to really stretch myself and tell a story, which was a political story and election story.” Greenfield says the story is really about the fragility of democracy. “It’s about the rise of authoritarian regimes and the way history is written and how, with enough wealth and power, you can actually rewrite history to your own advantage.”
Letting The Film Evolve In The Field
Greenfield, who is a Canon Explorer of Light photographer and filmmaker, mostly relied on Canon DSLRs and lenses to make this film. However, she did use some more specialized gear for specific shots.
“We also used a drone,” Greenfield says, which is the first time she used one. She generally thinks drones are overused these days, but she felt it necessary for certain types of footage. “It was really helpful in establishing these different environments, particularly the kind of surreal, almost fantastical Jurassic Park world of the animal island [a wildlife sanctuary Ferdinand Marcos had built in the mid 1970s].” Greenfield also felt the drone was useful in shooting the poverty of Manila as well as showing the stark contrast between poverty and wealth. “The drone helped establish that,” says Greenfield.
In a few scenes, Greenfield used a high-speed frame rate to capture slow-motion. “We used some slow motion, particularly with the animals,” says Greenfield, referring to the scenes of the African safari park, which is now completely fallen into a state of ruin. “I think it contributed to that kind of fantastical feeling, especially with the giraffes fighting.”
She also incorporated quite a lot of her own still photography in the film. “I didn’t go in thinking photography would necessarily be a part of it, although I’m always taking pictures when I’m shooting a film. But it ended up being a good way to punctuate, stop time and make you look a little harder in some of these environments.”
If there’s one lesson Greenfield learned from creating this documentary, it is that films can take a new, unexpected direction. In short, films can evolve in the field, as events unfold. “I feel like that’s what I love about filmmaking and photography, and it’s kind of like the influence of [Henri] Cartier-Bresson’s decisive moment—that idea that it’s in the moment that you make the connections.”