How dangerous can a president be? Lauren Greenfield's Imelda Marcos documentary 'The Kingmaker' has some answers

Amy Kaufman, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

Lauren Greenfield had traveled over 7,000 miles -- from Venice Beach to the Philippines -- before she realized that the subject of her documentary was an unreliable narrator. The filmmaker was in Southeast Asia to interview Imelda Marcos, who'd been the first lady of the archipelagic country for 21 years.

Initially, Greenfield was interested in making a film about Calauit Island, where in 1976, Marcos persuaded her husband -- Ferdinand Marcos, the president of the Philippines -- to relocate 104 wild animals from Africa. After going on safari in Kenya, Imelda Marcos became envious that her country did not have exotic species and decided to ship giraffes, zebras, gazelles and more to Calauit. The 245 families living on the 14-square-mile island in the South China Sea were evicted to make room for the animals.

Four decades later, however, the health of the wildlife on Calauit was in decline. After President Marcos was forced out of power in 1986 -- he and his wife went into exile in Hawaii -- the government stopped looking out for the animals. Greenfield only learned of the island's existence after reading a 2013 Bloomberg article in which a journalist visited the sickly, inbred herds.

So when Greenfield finally sat face to face with Imelda Marcos at a lavish apartment in Manila, the director asked what she thought about what had become of the animals on Calauit.

"There are no animals on Calauit," Marcos replied with certainty.

Except that Greenfield knew that wasn't the case. She had already been to the island herself, camping among pythons and eland antelope. There was no fresh water, cellphone service or electricity. But there were dozens of animals.


"I found out that a lot of things she said were not true or did not align with historical accounts or first-person testimonials," Greenfield said, reflecting on the interview. "So I kind of let her tell her story. She's one of those people that is so strong that you just have to catch what comes to you. There's no guiding or -- 'Can we talk about this?' She gives you what she wants to give you. She's in control."

But "The Kingmaker," as the documentary would go on to be called, is not without context. The movie, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival in August, is a portrait of a woman whose words are often in stark contradiction with reality.

Best known for owning 3,000 pairs of shoes, Marcos was often depicted in the international media as the epitome of glamour, drawing comparisons to Jackie Kennedy. During her husband's reign -- which began in 1965 and ended in 1986 -- the dictator became increasingly controversial, eventually imposing martial law in the Philippines. But the affable Marcos was mostly able to retain a positive reputation, sent by her husband to charm the likes of Moammar Kadafi, Saddam Hussein and Richard Nixon.

By the time Greenfield got to her, she was in her 80s, having returned from the U.S. to her native country in 1991. She and her husband -- who died in 1989 -- had been accused of embezzling between $5 and $10 billion from the Filipino people during their time in power. Nevertheless, she was still embraced by many in the nation, running numerous times for congress and winning.


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