The more absolute power is, the more it depends on projecting illusions. The thuggery that sustains any dictatorial regime goes to work out of sight; what the intimidated populace sees is parades and circuses, the appurtenances of totalitarian showbiz. During his time as president of the Philippines from 1965 to 1986, Ferdinand Marcos imposed martial law, bullied the courts, tortured dissidents and systematically plundered the nation’s wealth, while his consort Imelda wafted flagrantly through the slums dressed in Paris gowns to dispense alms. Together the Marcoses established a new style of deluxe autocracy, one characterised by glitz and kleptomaniac graft. In doing so they anticipated the rapacity of Trump and his seamy clan.
Now ninety, Imelda is back from exile, swankily housed – she sniffs in passing that the palace she and Ferdinand occupied was not very comfortable – and installed as a congresswoman. Having outwitted teams of prosecutors, she has used a portion of her looted billions to bankroll the presidency of the brutish Rodrigo Duterte: their understanding, it appears, is that he will ease the dynastic accession of her son Bongbong, a dimwit who is as resonantly empty as the drums his name evokes. Imelda may have thought that Lauren Greenfield’s The Kingmaker would assist her family’s rehabilitation. If so, she can’t have been informed that Greenfield’s previous documentaries include Generation Wealth, about the insanity of contemporary money lust, and The Queen of Versailles, in which the wife of a billionaire sets out, with enjoyably calamitous consequences, to build ‘the biggest house in America’ in a Florida swamp.
The brash vulgarians in those earlier films seemed unaware that Greenfield might not share their tacky dreams, and Imelda likewise blithely incriminates herself. Tottering into a cancer ward in a children’s hospital, she asks an attendant to give her money, which she vacantly showers on the afflicted infants. Enthroned in a limo, she cruises past shantytowns where the residents scavenge in muck; after allowing them a glimpse of her face, she reflects that ‘the poor always look for a star in the dark of the night.’ She boasts of having befriended Muammar Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein and Chairman Mao during her travels as Ambassador Plenipotentiary and Extraordinary, and regrets that she can’t resume her mission to bring peace to the tormented globe.
Those messianic tours doubled as spending sprees. In New York she took a fancy to the Crown Building, a skyscraper on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street that is illuminated at night by a decorative coronet of lights, and on a whim she bought it; the underhand deal, sealed with funds from her racketeering crony Adnan Khashoggi, was Imelda’s self-coronation. ‘I gave birth to what I dreamed of,’ she says, ‘and I always got my way.’ With unlimited funds, acquisition was for her an art, an exercise in wish-fulfilling fantasy. But behind the aesthetic flummery, Imelda is shrewdly attuned to the shameless politics of the media age. Questioned about her complicity in her husband’s crimes, she shrugs her shoulders aphoristically. ‘Perception is real,’ she tells Greenfield, ‘and the truth is not.’
Imelda’s effrontery remains as implacable as her helmet of raven-black hair: it’s no surprise to discover that as First Lady she wore bulletproof bras. ‘I was mothering the world,’ she sighs, but that nurturing bosom had an armour plating. Once or twice she slips up. Explaining her role as Madonna and matriarch, she recalls being orphaned at the age of eight and says, ‘When you lose your money – er, mother – you lose everything.’ Elsewhere she talks Greenfield through a series of state visits by exhibiting an array of framed photographs absurdly propped up on a table in a tropical garden. ‘Here is Russia,’ she says, and with a negligent swipe of her hand knocks the memento to the ground; the other photographs topple like an allegorical house of cards. She continues unperturbed, as a servant scrambles to gather up the fragments of shattered glass.
Other details accentuated by Greenfield splice together lucre and ordure, cash and calories. Hustled off to exile in Hawaii in 1986, Imelda grabs a fistful of diamonds that she smuggles onto the waiting helicopter inside a nappy; arrested on her return to the Philippines five years later, she is bailed out when a lawyer arrives with wads of dollars stashed in a sticky Mister Donut napkin. This self-sanctifying monster suffers a single twinge of existential doubt. ‘Is my tummy too big?’ she asks as she settles down on a sofa and permits the camera to pay court.
This mockery eases The Kingmaker along until Greenfield hears the testimony of activists imprisoned, beaten and sexually molested by the agents of the Marcos regime. She also replays a newsreel in which the opposition leader Benigno Aquino is gunned down; a grim montage of Duterte’s recent massacres shows history remorselessly repeating itself. ‘Beauty is really the extravagance of love,’ burbles Imelda. Maybe so, but it’s also true that ugliness and violence are the uninhibited extravagance of hate. Greenfield’s satire inflicts surface wounds, but it is no match for the killers kept on the payroll by Marcos and Duterte.