For the past two decades the Boston-born, Venice-based photographer and filmmaker Lauren Greenfield has captured the extremes of Hollywood adolescence (Fast Forward) and eating disorders (Thin), the extravagances of beauty culture (Beauty CULTure), and the perils of conspicuous consumption (The Queen of Versailles and Generation Wealth) in books, traveling exhibitions, and documentaries that have made her “America’s foremost visual chronicler of the plutocracy.” Her transfixing images have graced the pages of The New Yorker and Vanity Fair, and have been acquired for the collections of LACMA, SFMOMA, and the Smithsonian, while her films have shown at the Sundance and Venice film festivals. In August, it was at the latter that she debuted The Kingmaker, her latest and perhaps most ambitious doc to date, and it’s been generating Oscar buzz ever since. Where Greenfield’s more recent subjects have fallen under the umbrella of what she calls “aspirational royalty,” she’s spent the past few years training her lens on the woman who all but invented the category: Imelda Marcos, former first lady of the Philippines.
“In my other films I’ve stayed in the verité world and not gone out of it,” says Greenfield, noting, “I didn’t want this to be a film of experts, either, but then I started interviewing other people who brought these different perspectives, and when you hear their amazing voices, you instinctively know they are telling the truth. They kind of take over being the narrators.”
Greenfield began her pursuit of her unreliable narrator, the infamous widow of the kleptocratic Filipino president Ferdinand Marcos, in 2016. Once considered Manila’s analogue to Camelot, the former Filipino first couple famously palled around with Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan only to be exiled to Hawaii in 1986 after embezzling upwards of $10 billion from its government’s coffers after a decade’s worth of horrible human rights abuses during a brutal period of martial law. They were also believed to have ordered the assassination of their fiercest political rival, Benigno Aquino, whose wife, Corazon, succeeded Marcos in office. Upon being exiled, Imelda famously left a closetful of $80,000 dresses and 3,000 pairs of designer shoes in her palace, which Greenfield’s cameras captured, piles of dust gathering atop them.
Now back in the Philippines, the Marcos family is again accumulating power, and are thought to be propping up nationalist dictator Rodrigo Duterte, who has killed thousands of citizens in his take-no-prisoners war on drugs. Infamously, he once sang to Donald Trump, “You are the light in my world, half of this heart of mine.”
Greenfield was there to capture every moment of the Marcoses’ Trumpian turnaround, and witnessed the votes being tallied, the dead bodies piling up on the streets, and the police tampering with evidence before her cameras as Imelda attempts to weave a new chapter in her family’s troubled legacy by rewriting the past and rewiring the future to once again become the titular hero of this film and the Philippines. As Marcos says in the film, “Perception is real, and the truth is not.”
Before The Kingmaker opens theatrically on Friday in L.A. at the the Laemmle Royal in Sawtelle, Greenfield spoke with Los Angeles about what attracted her to the “Steel Butterfly,” how she got Marcos to reveal more than the “Queen of Versailles” did, and what shocked her most while making this jaw-dropping doc.
How did you get this film off the ground? It seems crazy that Imelda Marcos would even say yes to participating.
Well, maybe you’ll appreciate that it came from a journalist and an article I read in Bloomberg about the animal island Caluit. I was completely fascinated to learn about this island. People know about [Imelda Marcos’s] shoes, but to me this was a much bigger extravagance: depopulating an island of its indigenous population and bringing in animals from Africa on a boat. That was 1976—cut to 1986 [the Marcos family] gets thrown out of the country and these animals are left to fend for themselves with a very selfless, incredible, well-meaning caretaker, but one who has no veterinary experience and there are very little resources for food and no new blood so they end up having four generations of inbreeding by the time I get there. The journalist who wrote the article, William Miller, introduced me to all the people involved, including Imelda Marcos, and gave me my first introduction to her and enabled my first interview with her.
So where did you actually first meet her?
That was in Manila. That was in the interview that is really important in the film with the gold framed paintings behind her. The Picasso and…
Like the Michelangelo and Fragonard?
She later tried to hide those from your cameras, right?
Well, not from me, but from the Presidential Commission on Good Government, which was tasked with going after the ill-gotten wealth, including 170 paintings that they were trying to find after [the Marcos family] was accused of stealing $5 to $10 billion from the Filipino people. The commission was formed after the family was kicked out of the country with the task of repatriating the money to the Filipino people. So a lot of these paintings are these moveable assets, which they haven’t been able to get. While I was filming, and in a way this is an example of what started as this historical tale and ended up having all these present-day narratives, the PCGG did a raid on all of the Marcoses’ homes. When they raided the apartment they were made to wait two hours in the lobby before Imelda let them up, and when she let them up all of the paintings were gone and they were replaced with photographs of the Marcoses. I really didn’t know if I would be invited back into the apartment after that, but Imelda really wasn’t afraid of anything.
So that first interview was the scene in which she asked her assistants if her stomach and makeup looked OK.
Did she seem to like you at that first shoot?
Yeah, and I liked her. The paradox of her character is that she’s charming and charismatic and kind, some of the same words she used to describe some of the worst dictators in history: her friends Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, and Chairman Mao. But in person she is a lovely, charismatic [person] who wants to offer you food and is kind of this lovely older woman. I thought in the beginning that it could be a redemption story, that in her old age she would look back differently on the ills and abuses of the Marcos regime. But you see even in that first interview how she’s actively trying to rewrite history and kind of sell her version of historical events, that’s why I did include the part where she was like, “Do I look alright? Is my stomach too big?” And then later, in another interview, I included this part where she asks her maid to move this gold sheep toward the camera because I wanted to show how she is trying to art direct her version of history and let the audience know how to interpret that.
In the film she does start off, probably in the same way you first encountered her, as this sympathetic-seeming older dignitary giving away money to children and then she starts saying things like martial law was the high point of the Marcos regime or just glossing over the affairs of her husband. Was there a sense that she just had no sense for what it is you do in your work?
I mean, probably not. I think she is a narcissist who beats to her own drum. I think she knew my photographs and I think she knew my film credits. I think she’s someone who looks at awards and education and who else you’ve talked to, but I don’t think she’s watched The Queen of Versailles. If she did, she never mentioned it. I think she really likes the attention of the press, particularly the glory of her first lady days when they were like Jack and Jackie Kennedy and Camelot. I think she wanted the chance to tell her story and there were some interviews that were like three hours; my associate producer said to me there was one interview where I barely got a word in edgewise.
There’s a lot of monologues going on with Imelda Marcos and some of them are her lines, the myths she’s created about the Marcos era which she will repeat over and over again. When she said she was “a star in the dark of night” that was something she said to the L.A. Times, she said it to W, she said it in a really love portrait film that was made about her 16 years ago by Ramona Diaz. But then she’ll drop a bomb that’s an incredible revelation because she speaks so candidly because she doesn’t really care what anybody thinks and she’s not afraid of anybody and she thinks she has been victimized and in a way she sees herself as this philanthropic mother of the country doing selfless service for the people and she’s happy to share that.
One of the great things about this film is that you investigate the other side and speak to the people who were kicked out of Caluit; or the people who were physically, sexually, and mentally abused during the martial law period, and the family’s political rivals and they very frankly tell the other side of the story. Did she ever get wind that was happening?
No. I definitely felt a journalistic and ethical and historical obligation, once I realized she was an unreliable narrator, to say the least, and was actively trying to rewrite history so there would be a different view of the Marcos legacy, but also—even though I didn’t realize it at the time—so the Marcos family could come back to power in the electorate. I definitely felt an obligation to let the audience know what was true and how she was trying to rewrite it and why. In the beginning you may not realize you can’t completely trust Imelda. She tells you about this animal island and said there were no people there but then you hear from this indigenous woman who was there. I think the really chilling point was when you see this scene with schoolchildren and her version of history has actually taken hold in a lot of places in the Philippines and that’s what has allowed this new rise to power.
You’re sort of revealing the counter-narrative and historical truth, but she effectively rewriting history as you are making this film. Her son was vying for the vice presidency and her family was bankrolling Duterte.
That was breaking news in real time. Until Duterte gives this press conference in which he says Imee [Marcos, Imelda and Ferdinand’s daughter] gave me the money, nobody knew about that. They knew that Duterte admired Marcos and they knew he played around with the idea of giving him a hero’s burial, which had been anathema for so long, but he said that and it was a like a bomb dropping.
And those were your cameras who caught that?
No, that was a pickup from a news outlet.
But the camera panned to Imee.
That was incredibly lucky. So often in a news conference the cameras are fixed on the president of the republic so the fact that whoever was shooting that got that cutaway of Imee reacting was really miraculous and so revealing. And then we were the ones shooting the crowd outside when Imee was denying it and Bongbong was saying there wasn’t a deal after that conference.
How do you think this film relates to your other films and photography that documents these excessive personalities?
There are crossovers. This aspirational royalty and these commissioned portraits of people as royals or Adam and Eve, this is something [The Queen of Versailles subjects] David and Jackie Siegel have in common with Imelda. She created this genre. I was attracted to this story because of Imelda’s complex character. At the same time she’s charismatic, attractive and appealing she’s also guilty of terrible things with tragic consequences. It’s kind of a perplexing character like Jackie Siegel. The island was also this metaphor I was drawn to this empty house that is this symbol of misguided excessive narcissism. But this film was also a real departure for me because it ended up being this political story following an election really looking at history and the draw of the strongman and the return to dictatorship, and if you don’t remember history you are bound to repeat it, and the fragility of democracy. I think there are some parallels; as a photographer my work has always looked at image and if you see Imelda’s image, from her shoes to her dress to the way she art directs her world, it has something in common with other characters that I’ve documented. But in this film there’s a sharp relief with the truth-tellers who are completely unadulterated, unfiltered, unadorned, very simple backgrounds. Also, the falseness of image is something I’ve looked at in my photography and films, and Imelda lives it but she also understands the power of it. She says, “Perception is real and the truth is not.”
That was amazing to hear her say. It’s this Trumpian, “Don’t believe what you’re reading or seeing.” I like to think of Trump as the bank robber who refuses to wear a mask with this old gangster attitude of “Catch me if you can.”
It’s like Imelda moves the paintings around and Andy Bautista, who ran the Commission on Good Government, asks her if they are her paintings and she says, “There are so many I can’t remember.” And then in the elevator going down after the investigation interview she said, “But if I told you the painting was mine could I get it back?” This was more investigative and more journalistic for me. I didn’t think that when I started out with an animal island I would be filming dead bodies on the streets of Manila, and the police were so open about and not afraid of anything: moving evidence in front of our cameras.
This film is pretty shocking for viewers, but what was the most surprising thing that happened for you as a filmmaker during this process?
There were a lot of things she said that I could not believe, like when she starts having a breakdown because the PCGG is sequestering all her stuff and she says, “I have money in 170 banks and I can’t even get to my deposits.” The first time we showed it in Telluride, Andy Bautista, the former head of the PCGG who is now in exile in America, was sitting beside me and his mouth dropped open and he said, “I could have used that as evidence!” I was afraid to ask her about the assassination of Benigno Aquino because people always thought that she was behind it, and she responded, “Why would I do that? I have nothing against him except that he talked too much.” It was a candor and intimacy you could not imagine with a politician in this country. But the most shocking thing was not what came out of her mouth but the fact that the Filipino people start to believe and kids in the classroom are talking about the glory days under Marcos and how martial law was a good thing.
Yeah, you basically have the film analogue of the Ukraine phone call on tape and nobody believes it.
[LAUGHS] Well I’ll take that as a compliment.
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