LONDON—At the 80th birthday party of comedian Joey Adams in the ballroom of an upmarket hotel overlooking Central Park in 1991, Donald Trump and Imelda Marcos sat side by side; two vulgar icons of ’80s greed and ambition.
Imelda and her husband Ferdinand Marcos had been ousted from power five years earlier by a popular uprising in the Philippines where people had grown sick of their corruption and brutality. Trump was a loud-mouthed but ultimately powerless New York real estate mogul.
Fifteen years later, in 2016, Trump was elected President of the United States and Marcos’ political clout was restored after a Filipino presidential election in which her son stood to be vice president and Rodrigo Duterte became the hardline president.
The Marcos family are believed to have stolen more than $10 billion from the Filipino people during their 21-year reign. Ferdinand died in 1989, but in recent years, the family secretly helped to fund the rise of Duterte, a notorious homophobe and rape apologist who has bragged of executing drug-dealers in thousands of extrajudicial street killings.
Trump is one of the few world leaders to have spoken warmly of Duterte and reportedly congratulated him on his approach to the drug trade.
The great claim to fame of vaudevillian Joey Adams’ may be his invention of the one-liner: “With friends like these, who needs enemies?”
With friends like his, that’s no wonder.
Imelda Marcos, who is now 90, is currently trying to help her son, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., overturn defeat in the 2016 vice-presidential election (after three years, Duterte’s judges are still refusing to reject his appeal). He is likely to run to succeed Duterte when his one-term limit comes to an end in 2022.
If Imelda lives to see her son’s election as president, it would be an extraordinary return to power for a woman who was forced into exile as one of the world’s most mocked and disdained leaders, famous for collecting more than a thousand pairs of designer shoes while the angry populace was restrained under martial law.
Her second rise has been expertly charted in Kingmaker by documentarian Lauren Greenfield, whose previous work includes the Sundance-feted The Queen of Versailles. Her new film offers a glimpse of the distorted inner monologue of a politician driven by autocratic tendencies.
Imelda describes herself as a “mother” to the Philippines and its clear that she genuinely believes her kleptocratic rule blessed the nation. On screen we see her tutting over buildings that have been left to decay in the subsequent decades, while she passes out cash to needy citizens who squabble over the handouts.
“I do think she believes her story,” Greenfield told the Daily Beast in London. “And the people around her don’t disabuse her of that. In a way she’s got her own delusions.”
Greenfield spent five years filming the documentary, a period that spanned Imelda’s rise from a period as a lowly congresswoman to the rebirth of her power. “As we worked over the five years it became clear that they were coming back to power. And that this wasn’t a story about the past; it was a story about the present,” she said.
That transformation was made possible by a change in the perception of the Marcos family, who were chased out of the country in disgrace 30 years ago. An aggressive use of social media as well as campaigning to have schools change the way the history of their reign was taught have helped to reinvent their reputation.
“Perceptions are real, the truth is not,” says Imelda in the film.
“She’s aware of the power of the media,” explained Greenfield. “She says ‘The gun can kill you only till the grave, and the media can kill you to infinity and beyond.’ And they've been very adept at using social media to communicate their talking points about martial law and the Marcos era. That was a really big part of how they seeded a lot of the ideas. Bongbong really went after the younger generation which didn't really remember martial law.”
Thus the Marcos family have succeeded in ingratiating themselves back into polite society and into the hearts of millions of voters.
As the film begins, we are swept into Imelda’s attractive and rarefied world. “At first I found her kind and generous, and captivating and funny, and able to laugh at herself in a way that was kind of endearing. And then as I learned of the terrible and tragic consequences of the regime that she was complicit in, my view of her and also her version of history really changed,” Greenfield said.
Kingmaker shows us both sides. The film’s brilliance lies in allowing us to see the autocrat’s delusion in still believing they speak for the common man. It’s a familiar theme.
“Imelda talks about her friends who other people thought were monsters, but she thought were kind and generous like Saddam Hussein and Chairman Mao. It makes you think of Trump's bedfellows and who he's attracted to, like Putin and even Duterte,” said Greenfield.
Imelda says Mao kissed her hand and congratulated her personally for ending the Cold War. She also claims to have given him the idea for the Cultural Revolution.
By joining forces with Duterte, the Marcos family is emphasizing the continuity with a new generation of strongmen. “Duterte was really the expression of the terror of dictatorship coming back, they were leaning in to what happened and trying to get back there again,” said Greenfield.
“It's a cautionary tale for us about what happens when you don't remember history; about the fragility of democracy and the return to authoritarian regimes,” the director said. “I didn't start the movie as just being about the Philippines and I am pleased that people are seeing it as a reflection also of what's going on in the U.S. and the rise of nationalism in Europe.”