I had the pleasure of speaking with Lauren Greenfield, the filmmaker who directed “The Queen of Versailles” (2012) and “Generation Wealth” (2018) about her latest documentary, “The Kingmaker,” during the The Chicago International Film Festival. She has spent most of her career exploring the idea of wealth and the truth behind it. In “The Kingmaker”, a deeper and uglier truth emerges from the story of Imelda Marcos, a woman with extravagant wealth, who was first lady to husband Ferdinand Marcos, president of the Philippines (1965 – 1986).
During her husband’s reign, she bought an island and brought in animals from all over the world so her son could have a zoo, and then evicted the indigenous people who lived on the island. Fast forward from 1977, and the aftermath is horrifying. It goes darker and deeper from there, as we disturbingly see this corrupt government under martial law coming back into power with the presidential election of Rodrigo Duterte. The film is chilling, and is a cautionary/real-life tale reflecting our current situation in the United States. This is a must watch for everyone before election time.
Read my conversation with Lauren below as we discuss her powerful and timely documentary. We were also joined by Andy Bautista, who served as the Philippines’ Chair of the Commission on Elections and also was in charge of securing all of the money that the Marcos family had stolen from the Philippine government during the presidency of Benigno Aquino III (2010 – 2016).
REBECCA MARTIN: What drew you to the subject of Imelda? Growing up, I just knew about her shoes. If you had a lot of shoes, people called you Imelda. I seriously knew nothing else about her or the Marcos family.
LAUREN GREENFIELD: Yeah, originally it was her fame about her shoes. I had been looking at wealth and consumerism, and she was this iconic reference point, so it was kind of something from the history books. When I found out she was alive and back in the Philippines, and she talked to me, I was excited, but what really got me interested was the article about the animal island.
MARTIN: Oh my god, that was so awful. Once that was revealed, I knew she was not a good person.
GREENFIELD: It was like the ultimate extravagance. People know about the shoes, but here was an island that was populated by indigenous people, so it involves human rights and animal rights. It was very symbolic because it was creating this unnatural situation that you can’t control, and that you don’t know what the consequences are. It’s like “Jurassic Park” (1993). And so the fact they kind of birthed this, and then had to go into exile, the animals and the people are meant to fend for themselves. Kind of a symbolic story about the consequences of wealth and power. The legacy that you can’t even predict, like the unintended consequences.
MARTIN: I do appreciate you taking us way back, so you could see where this situation came from.
GREENFIELD: Well the island we shot, that’s in present tense. I was interested in what happened to them and what happened to Imelda. So I kind of thought it would be this survivor story. I was just puttering around with all of these things in her past: the dictatorship in her past, all of that, the rise of the Marcos regime, and the animals. I never expected it to turn into a comeback story. I thought that when she was a congresswoman, it was just a nod to her past. I didn’t realize it was the edge of a much bigger comeback for the family. A lot of the Marcos children were in office, but once she decided to go for national office for vice presidency with her son, that was a game changer. One step away from becoming the president again. Then it really turned into a political story. We ended up bringing in the past as it bubbled up.
MARTIN: I really appreciate that because it seems that in the news you only get bits of it, not the whole picture. It was great that you painted the whole picture. That kind of goes with that quote from Imelda: “Perception is real, the truth is not.” I appreciate you filling in the gaps with truth.
GREENFIELD: I think in the past, people have dismissed her as crazy or delusional. Or in her own world. That’s where I started with her, and that’s what I thought in the beginning. But that is to underestimate her, the same way a lot of people underestimated our president, and didn’t take him seriously. She is really smart and full of agency. But I realized she was an unreliable narrator, and that a lot of the things she was saying were untrue. So I started bringing in truth tellers like Andy Bautista, people who you could tell were credible, those who give the audience a sense of what really happened. And that really dictated the structure of the edit. If you didn’t put the truth right next to what she said, you didn’t get it, because she sounds so convincing.
MARTIN: By the end you don’t believe a word coming out of her mouth.
ANDY BAUTISTA: But then she would give spontaneous admissions that were actually true. Like her saying she had a 170 bank accounts.
MARTIN: That’s what you were in charge of, right Andy?
GREENFIELD: Yeah, that would have been useful information for him.
One of the reasons she was a great subject was because of her candor. Even though some of the things are not true, there are a lot of revelations because she has very little filter. And she isn’t afraid of anything. So like she’ll say–like she said to Andy–if I say the Picasso’s mine, can I have it back? If I say the Monet’s mine, can I have it back?
MARTIN: That was a funny scene, although I don’t like to say it’s funny because it’s so messed up, but when she switched out the Picasso and Monet with family photos since she owed the money to the government. There you see the truth sliced right next to the perception.
But what I wanted to talk about was the strong women in this film, going all the way back to Cory Aquino, whose son Andy worked for, is that correct?
BAUTISTA: Yes and Cory was the one who created the Presidential Commission on Good Government to recover the Marcos’ illegal wealth. Then she passed away in 2009, and her son Benigno Aquino III became president, largely because of the mother’s passing. There was a lot of sympathy.
GREENFIELD: And I think the current vice president, Leni Robredo, is kind of in the mold of Cory.
BAUTISTA: Her husband passed away in a car accident, so there are a lot of similarities.
GREENFIELD: And this is a person who does good. She’s fearless.
MARTIN: Glad to hear that she is still going strong. There were some scary things that were happening towards the end of the film.
GREENFIELD: Yeah, she’s fighting for her life. She’s fighting, she’s the head of the opposition, running against Duterte (Rodrigo Duterte). So her and May (May Rodriguez), the rape survivor, and Etta (Etta Rosales), the congresswoman, are incredibly brave.
MARTIN: I’m so glad they were in the film, just because those are other stories that are important to be told. There are a lot of scary people in this film, like Duterte.
GREENFIELD: And they are real. Duterte is so sexist.
BAUTISTA: Did you hear the latest? He was given a doctorate in Russia. One of their organizations was giving him an award, and he said, “You know what, I don’t like awards. Just give me the most beautiful girl in the room that I can have dinner with, and I will remember you forever.”
MARTIN: That’s disgusting. Again, I appreciate you putting a complete picture together.
GREENFIELD: I’m tired of hearing about Trump. I’m kind of overwhelmed. Yet this story is such a reflection, it’s such a cautionary tale for us. I hope, that because of Imelda’s celebrity, there’s some black comedy in the beginning of the film, people will go on the journey, and also will reflect about what’s going on here.
MARTIN: How long did it take to make the film?
GREENFIELD: It was a five year process. Two years mostly consisted of editing. And I made a couple trips too during that time as things started to change because the story was changing in real time. When Duterte won, I realized that was the end of the story, and that really implodes the structure. It wasn’t until I was able to establish the time between the Dutertes and the Marcos family that I could really end the movie.
MARTIN: Not really a good ending, is it? I mean hopefully things will be good, but you’re right, it’s a cautionary tale. I’d like to discuss the idea of hope. I think that’s so important in these dark times, and I got hope simply from hearing those people’s stories who had to deal with the pain of the Marcos family and their reign–like the activists, and Andy. For the people who watch the film, they are going to remember these stories. As much as the idea that ‘perception is real’, truth always sticks, I feel. You hear people tell their stories that are full of truth and reality, and that’s the thing that sticks with people. And that goes with wealth too, like what’s shallow and fake . . .
GREENFIELD: And in the movie, Imelda–the frames and the interviews with Imelda–are gilded, whereras the truth-tellers in the film are just raw.
MARTIN: Very close-up.
GREENFIELD: And very little decoration.
MARTIN: What are your hopes for this film? What kind of impact would you want it to make?
GREENFIELD: I hope for us it’s a cautionary tale. What we saw there is how fragile democracy is, how in the space of one election, the things people kind of assumed would go away came back. Here we see the threat to our democratic institutions. It’s a good reminder that we cannot assume that those are intact on their own.
MARTIN: Watch this film before the election.
GREENFIELD: Exactly. That’s true for here and elsewhere.
BAUTISTA: My hope first of all, is that these kinds of films are very important, for Filipinos in general, to make informed judgements. Because judgements are being made, but they are not informed. Lauren’s independent. This production is not really a Filipino production, it’s an objective assessment of what the situation is. I think the hope is in its call to action. Right now there is a lot of apathy. It’s a bit riled up.
I was looking at the people of Hong Kong who were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. If you think about it, these people are really fighting for what they believe in.
GREENFIELD: I am really excited because the film is going to go to the Hong Kong film festival. And yesterday it was asked to be in Rio de Janeiro.
MARTIN: That’s interesting because there was another documentary that dealt with similar themes, Petra Costa’s “The Edge of Democracy,” about the politics in Brazil.
GREENFIELD: Yeah, it’s happening all over the world. Yes, the subjects of the film are dark, but I think the hope is (A) It could be a cautionary tale, and (B) there is a record, like you said, that can be seen as a reference point, with misinformation and propaganda. I think you’re right that the audience knows when somebody is telling the truth and when they are not. You have people like Andy, May, Etta, and Leni, and there’s just something authentic about their voices. And with Imelda, in the beginning, before you know that she is lying, you still get the sense that–
MARTIN: Like something fishy is going on. There’s something not right about this.
GREENFIELD: She is presenting to the camera, how she wants to present. Whether it’s moving the gold sheep…
MARTIN: There was that funny bit where she had all the pictures and she then knocks one off, and keeps going. Then a guy comes from out of nowhere and starts picking up the glass behind her.
BAUTISTA: And then Lauren focuses the camera on the man picking up the glass.
MARTIN: Yeah I guess you have to laugh at these things, but it’s pretty awful as well.
I wanted to talk about representation. Could you share what you feel you were representing that is not represented as much in film.
GREENFIELD: The misinformation that’s going on in the Philippines now, the real story of martial law, and hearing from the survivors. May had never told that story of the rape before we filmed her. That was so powerful. I think she was even surprised at herself that she was so honest in all of the details. I know the Marcos family have had a lot of platforms for their voice. It’s important to establish what the Marcoses are trying to put forward, and carefully deconstruct that, because we all need to hear the other voices. Those are the ones historically that have been deafened down. Because of the fear of Duterte, before the Marcos family, we don’t hear Robredo’s (Leni Robredo) amazing voice. The indigenous woman who spoke up about what happened to them are so powerful. It’s true that it happens to be all of these incredibly brave women who are speaking out. We’ve got Leni, we’ve got May, we’ve got Etta–I mean Leni’s the one standing up to Duterte, it’s unbelievable. So that was one thing to represent, and I guess the story I wanted to tell is how if you don’t remember history, you’re condemned to repeat it.
MARTIN: That’s so true.
BAUTISTA: It’s about the past, and how she is able to really rewrite the past. Again it’s the concept of this information of fake news, which to me, makes you think about the continuing relevance of the first amendment. The American concept has always been the interplay of ideas and the best idea will eventually win. I think Zuckerberg was saying that in Georgetown. But if one side has a little bit of resources…
Let’s circle back to the animals. There is a very powerful message here about political inbreeding and dynasties galore. It leads to things not being taken care of…
GREENFIELD: Victims of corruption.
BAUTISTA: She wanted her son to have his own zoo, like Lauren was saying. To her, there seemed to be nothing wrong with that.
GREENFIELD: Just to get back to the female side of it, it’s interesting how Imelda molded a unique power of that time. Being the kingmaker and expressing her power through the men, she was able to seduce and charm all of these world leaders with her feminine wiles. She said it was kind of helpful that they underestimated her. So I think, in a way, it is Leni that represents a more contemporary kind of female power. Again, like Andy said, she did get into politics because of her husband, but she’s using her power to express herself as an empowered woman, not somebody who is using her sexuality to manipulate.
“The Kingmaker” releases in theatres on November 8th, 2019