To many Americans, Imelda Marcos is little more than the weak punchline to a joke about shoes. When her late husband, Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos, was driven out of power in 1986, the detail that lodged itself in our cultural consciousness is the fact that when protestors raided the presidential palace, they found that Imelda had amassed a shoe collection 1,200 pairs strong. Cue the footwear jokes and drag queen impersonations.
But our country is currently learning the hard way that punchline politicians sometimes obscure their most horrifying offenses behind outlandish but relatively harmless antics. Maybe it’s that the world focused on the shoes and not the human rights abuses or the $10 billion the Marcoses allegedly pilfered from the Philippine treasury. Or maybe it’s just that our memories are piteously short. But Imelda Marcos is once again maneuvering her family into power—and acclaimed photographer and filmmaker Lauren Greenfield was along to document it for her new film, The Kingmaker.
Greenfield has made a name as a chronicler of wealth and beauty culture, and is perhaps best known for her 2012 documentary The Queen of Versailles. The film followed David and Jackie Siegel, a time-share billionaire and his beauty queen-wife as they attempted to build the largest house in America—only, like so many of their less privileged countrymen, to watch their dream home disappear in the wake of 2008’s Great Recession. In The Kingmaker, Greenfield turns her eye for excess to Marcos, who seems happy to oblige, posing before her Picassos and Michelangelos, showing off golden tchotchkes, and handing out wads of cash during public appearances.
But despite Marcos’s famed footwear collection and Greenfield’s focus on excess, it wasn’t the shoes that made the filmmaker select the former first lady as a documentary subject. Instead, Greenfield became hooked after reading a Bloomberg article about another Marcos extravagance. After going on safari in Kenya, the dictator and his wife decided to make sure their nation, too, would home giraffes, antelope, and other African animals. So they purchased over one hundred creatures and shipped them thousands of miles to a Philippine island called Calauit, evicting hundreds of families to make way for their own private zoo.
“I was just blown away by the existence of this Island that nobody seemed to know about,” said Greenfield. “Everybody focused on the shoes. To me, this was so much more excessive because it involved living things, human rights, and these very visible long-term consequences, both intended and unintended. It was a really interesting symbolic story about the consequences of power.”
Dark humor often pervades Greenfield’s work—in one memorable moment from The Queen of Versailles, Jackie Siegel was seen asking if her airport rental car would come with a driver. And in The Kingmaker, Marcos, shrewd but bafflingly un-self-aware, is the source of much grim comedy. She suffers a revealing slip of the tongue in one scene, recalling her mother’s untimely death and mourning just how awful it is to lose “your money… your mother.” But while it’s easy to laugh at some of the more ridiculous elements of the Siegels’ lives, the humor of Marcos’s sheer, obscene opulence becomes horror as The Kingmaker tells the stories of activists who survived the glittering first lady’s regime, and who describe being tortured and assaulted during the 14 years that Ferdinand Marcos ruled the country under martial law.
“I think laughing brings you into the story and into the character,” says Greenfield. “You go in maybe thinking it’s not going to be too heavy and that draws you in. And then, you go down a more unexpected ride.”
When Greenfield began filming in 2014, she didn’t know just how relevant her subject would become. In recent years, the surviving Marcoses have mounted a spectacular rise in Philippine politics. Despite the abuses of their regime, Ferdinand and Imelda’s daughter, Imee, currently serves as a Senator, while their son Ferdinand Jr., who’s known as Bongbong, is still contesting his loss of the vice presidency in the 2016 election. He’s considered a potential successor to current president Rodrigo Duterte—whose political rise was in part funded by the Marcoses—in 2022. Imelda herself served in the Phillippine Congress until this year.
“Perception is real,” says Marcos in the film, “and the truth is not.” This frightening observation is illustrated in a particularly disturbing scene in the documentary, which found Greenfield and her crew visiting a Philippine schoolhouse where children too young to remember Marcos’s rule regaled them with the virtues of martial law.
“I hope that the lesson people draw is the importance of history and accurate, truth telling history and facts,” says the filmmaker. “And I think in the time of fake news and the ability of disinformation to threaten democracy and threaten elections, that it’s so important for us to know history and understand the lessons from the past so that we can see the signs of the authoritarian leader coming, or a threat to our democracy.”
Though Marcos was surprisingly frank in her interviews with Greenfield, which largely took place before the last American presidential election, there was one topic she was unwilling to discuss publicly—Donald Trump. “I don’t think she wanted to say something about another foreign candidate,” said Greenfield. “Maybe she didn’t want to go on the record in case they’re in the palace and he’s in the palace.”