Sole survivor: How Imelda Marcos strutted back to power in the Philippines

Imelda Marcos in The Kingmaker. Photograph: Lauren Greenfield
The Kingmaker, Lauren Greenfield’s remarkable film about the shoe-obsessed former first lady of the Philippines,  exposes how Imelda Marcos lied and bought her way back into power

With a 3,000-plus shoe collection and bulletproof bras, the contents of Imelda Marcos’s closet often precede her. Even a career-long chronicler of the mega-rich like filmmaker Lauren Greenfield admits that she didn’t know much about the former first lady of the Philippines beyond her wardrobe choices.

Imelda Marcos had been an iconic reference in my work for years because I’d been working on stories about wealth and materialism and inequality,” Greenfield says. “But I never thought I would get to meet her. I didn’t even know she was alive.”

As Greenfield discovered when she met – and profiled – Marcos for her new film, The Kingmaker, the 90-year-old “Iron Butterfly” is very much alive and kicking, shaking up Philippines politics once again.

Imelda Marcos being fingerprinted after she surrendered to an anti-corruption court in in Manila in October 2001. Photograph: Erik de Castro/Reuters
Imelda Marcos being fingerprinted after she surrendered to an anti-corruption court in in Manila in October 2001. Photograph: Erik de Castro/Reuters

This was a surprise given that when Marcos, her dictator husband Ferdinand and their children were exiled from the Philippines in 1986 after 21 years of rule marked by corruption, extravagance and extreme brutality, the family were apparently consigned to the history books.

But in The Kingmaker, which Greenfield began filming in 2014, Imelda Marcos has bounced back in spectacular style. Now a congresswoman, decked out in Chanel slippers, the widow Marcos (Ferdinand died three years into exile), stops Manila traffic to greet the roadside poor, doling out crisp banknotes plucked from her designer handbag. This, while driving herself back into the heart of national politics.

‘Stormed the palace’

At the outset, Boston-born documentarian Greenfield had questions. “Imelda is an unlikely survivor. She was run out of the country. People stormed the palace as she escaped in a helicopter, stealing five to 10 billion dollars. How does that person get back and take public office again? It was like Richard Nixon coming back.”

The $10 billion snatched from the nation’s coffers is just one skeleton in Imelda Marcos’s closet. But in The Kingmaker, she says there is nothing to see but beautiful shoes. The extravagant use of public funds, while the country plunged into poverty, was simply mothering on a national scale. Liaisons with dictators such as Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi are presented as cute meets – though her five minutes with Chairman Mao, she tells the filmmaker, helped end the Cold War.

A museum employee displays some of Imelda Marcos’s shoes in Manila. Photograph: Ted Aljibe/AFP/GettyImages
A museum employee displays some of Imelda Marcos’s shoes in Manila. Photograph: Ted Aljibe/AFP/GettyImages

Marcos is as outlandish as the extravagances that became her signature (a friend quips that she had “an edifice complex”, such was her love of huge architectural projects at the public’s expense). But it was a lesser-known expenditure that drew Greenfield to her subject.

After a safari in Kenya in 1976, Marcos expressed her desire for an animal paradise in the Philippines. In reality, she wanted a private game reserve for her children. So she shipped a Noah’s Ark of African mammals over, identified an island, Calauit, to put them on and removed the 524 indigenous families who lived there. When she read about Calauit, Greenfield was hooked.

“It was such an insane extravagance. It was really a symbol of excess,” she tells me. “The shoes were nothing compared to this project that involved human rights and the wellbeing of animals in a place far from home.”

Extreme wealth

This story is very much grist to Greenfield’s mill. The filmmaker and photographer started out capturing the extreme wealth at her former alma mater, the LA private school of Crossroads. There, Greenfield photographed a pupil, Kim Kardashian, part of a young, wealthy, spendy scene that was a petri dish for the materialism that’s taken hold globally since. Greenfield has chronicled it through subjects ranging from the commodification of young girls’ bodies in the monograph Girl Culture to the construction of the largest home in the US during the country’s financial meltdown, in her Sundance-winning film The Queen of Versailles.

Greenfield critiques the system. But not everyone within it – usually driven by avarice and desire – comes off looking so hot either. So why would Marcos agree to Greenfield’s scrutiny?

“She does like attention and she likes to tell her story,” says the filmmaker. “And all of those things are good for a storyteller. It was also the right time. In 2014, she wasn’t getting that much attention. She was sidelined as a politician, her party were not the ones in power.”

Imelda Marcos in The Kingmaker. Photograph: Lauren Greenfield
Imelda Marcos in The Kingmaker. Photograph: Lauren Greenfield

When we meet in London, Greenfield is gregarious and easy company, which might also explain why someone would agree to undergoing her scrutiny. She also operates with a certain candour, demonstrated most vividly in her last documentary, Generation Wealth, which began as a sprawling critique of capitalism that turned into an interrogation of Greenfield’s own place in the system.

Her work has always been political, whether tracking the rise of the plutocracy or tackling everyday sexism, the latter in her Emmy-winning viral ad campaign for Always, #RunLikeAGirl. She runs a production company with her husband, Frank Evers; one of the LA -based couple’s latest ventures is a production house solely for female directors.

Different story

But The Kingmaker is Greenfield’s first story about politics, because Marcos made it so. On their return from exile in 1991, wealth intact, the family set about re-establishing themselves in Filipino political life. Imelda was elected to congress, her daughter Imee to the senate. When Marcos’s son, Bongbong, launched his campaign for the vice-presidency in the 2016 elections, Greenfield realised she had a different story on her hands. It made her reassess the stories Marcos had spun.

Imelda Marcos with her husband Ferdinand on the presidential campaign trail in 1986, shortly before the People Power Revolution forced the family into exile. Photograph: Andy Hernandez/Getty Images
Imelda Marcos with her husband Ferdinand on the presidential campaign trail in 1986, shortly before the People Power Revolution forced the family into exile. Photograph: Andy Hernandez/Getty Images

“Initially, when Imelda’s accounts did not align with historical accounts, I thought she was delusional. But then when Bongbong went for the vice-presidency, [I saw] that there was a real method to the madness,” Greenfield tells me. ‘They were actively rewriting what had happened with an eye on a young electorate that didn’t know what really happened. She was rewriting history to get back into power. That changed my storytelling because I realised then that the truth needed to be told.”

Ferdinand Marcos imposed martial law for 14 years from 1972, during which time the couple earned the dubious title of the “conjugal dictatorship”. Imelda Marcos does not dispute her agency – quite the opposite – while denying the human rights abuses in the period. Survivors of the regime tell Greenfield a different story. In those years, 70,000 democracy activists were imprisoned, 35,000 were tortured and more than 3,200 were murdered, including the Marcoses’ main political rival, Ninoy Aquino.

Greenfield also visited Calauit Safari Park, which Marcos told her had been closed down. Instead, a real life Jurassic Park had developed. The families had moved back to the island, where they now lived in uneasy coexistence with unsupervised giraffes, zebras and monkeys. The animals were suffering from diseases and inbreeding. It spoke to the filmmaker about the rotten politics she witnessed.

“The Philippines has always had, in modern times, the wealth concentrated in a very small group of families,” says Greenfield. ‘The film was an extreme way to look at wealth and power and also political dynasty. The animal island became a metaphor for inbreeding in politics.”

Photographer and filmmaker Lauren Greenfield: Photograph: Vincent Tullo/The New York Times
Photographer and filmmaker Lauren Greenfield: Photograph: Vincent Tullo/The New York Times

Political dynasty

Bongbong did not win in 2016, but family friend Rodrigo Duterte did. Imelda Marcos remains the head of a powerful political dynasty with vast spending power and a disregard for basic facts. Sound familiar?

“There were so many parallels with what was going on in the US,” says Greenfield. “This became a follow-the-money story. Ultimately the money – from handouts, into infrastructure where the Marcoses have strongholds, money into the campaign, into social media and disinformation – allows them back into power.”

Marcos also shares a lot in common with the US commander-in-chief. Both she and Trump were underestimated, says Greenfield. ‘Historically, people thought Imelda was just vain or indulgent rather than a cunning strategic politician,” says Greenfield. “Like Trump, she understands the importance of image. As Imelda says in the film, perception is real and the truth is not. Neither of them have any regard or hold truth as a value.”

The film is yet to be screened in the Philippines, where the Marcoses’ quest for power continues. Like the Calauit Safari Park story, their role in history is also largely unknown or dismissed. Schoolchildren spend no time learning about martial law; after the Marcoses’ downfall, the nation made the mistake of not reckoning with its past.

“It was just very different than Germany after the war, where people felt that young people had to know about the Holocaust,” says Greenfield. “In the Philippines, people moved on. Activists now say it was a mistake to not put it in the history books.”

Perhaps The Kingmaker can play its part. Greenfield is hopeful it will reach people there. “I do think it will be seen,” she concludes. “It’s a cautionary tale. In the Philippines, they are right in the middle of it.”

The Kingmaker is on release