The Kingmaker: Feet on the Ground, by David Bax
While Lauren Greenfield’s previous films (Queen of Versailles, Generation Wealth) have been political, her newest, The Kingmaker, is her first to be overtly about politics. But her pet themes are still on display. The site of Imelda Marcos mobbed by children and adults as she hands out cash or of Ferdinand Marcos’ body, still lying in state and preserved under glass nearly 30 years after his death, are just the newest exhibits in Greenfield’s cinematic museum highlighting grotesque displays of wealth.
Greenfield’s title refers to Imelda herself but her greater concern is for the Marcos family at large, their mercurial place in the collective Filipino conscious and their bizarre ability to endure. After Ferdinand’s 1986 flight from the presidency at the threat of a revolutionary response to his tenure of brutality and corruption, Imelda maintained a tenacious grasp on the family’s ill-gotten wealth and the power that, despite their disgrace, it still afforded her. The Kingmaker catches up with Imelda as a familiar wave of anti-intellectual, far right anger is revising her reputation and her son, Bongbong, is conveniently running for office.
Greenfield’s auteur status is defined by more than just her preoccupation with the moral implications of having a lot of money. It’s also that, by her own admission in Generation Wealth, she remains slightly envious of the luxury and comfort of these people’s lives, even as she documents their callousness and toxicity. Her willingness to let Imelda present, at length, her own version of her family history (even when it conflicts with the facts) belies her sympathy. Or is it pity? In any case, it’s a far more interesting and honest approach than that of “fuck this guy” hit-pieces like Where’s My Roy Cohn?.
And it’s not exactly as if Greenfield is letting the Marcoses off the hook. The violence of Ferdinand’s martial law policies, for instance, are recounted. Even more powerful are the interviews with and raw testimonials of those whose lives were decimated by the Marcos’ fickle fancies. Villagers tell Greenfield of being forced from their homes because they happened to be located where Imelda wanted to build her exotic animal park.
Imelda, as you might imagine, has more positive memories of the giraffes and other non-Filipino animals running free over those citizens’ former homeland. That’s only to be expected, as privilege protected her from the disastrous effects of the Marcos regime. What’s more dismaying is that the people of the Philippines—or a large enough section of them—seem also to have deluded themselves, looking back fondly on the time of martial law as a positive one of peace and order.
Misremembrances and nostalgia for things that never actually existed have proven effective in getting fascists and autocrats into office, from Donald Trump to the Philippines’ current strongman leader, Rodrigo Duterte. The Kingmaker’s sickly enchantment comes in letting us into the life of the sweet old matron of our descent into nationalistic hell.