Arts Festival

Political lessons from stolen giraffes



DOWN to her last Picasso: Imelda Marcos in ‘The Kingmaker’. Photo courtesy

THINK OF THE name Imelda Marcos and the image of 3 000 pairs of shoes might come to mind. This little anecdote rode on the back of accusations of the alleged ill-gotten gains of this former First Lady of the Philippines who took power deeply to heart. Director Lauren Greenfield explores the incorrigible widow with depth in her brilliant 2019 documentary, The Kingmaker, one of the pieces on this year’s Encounters International South African Documentary Film Festival, which begins on 20 August and runs, online and without cost, for ten days.

And then you see her. Weeping at the plight of poverty-stricken Filipino children – or better still, ones with cancer – as she hands banknotes to them, this woman makes you think of the difference between handing money out and giving the dispossessed a hand up. But as the three-dimensionality of the portrait of this heiress to power emerges, you ask yourself several times, whether she is an incredibly naive empath or an uncontrollable psychopath with a god complex?

The film pays careful, dignified attention to setting the tone for the caveats delivered in this astonishing story which reeks of the rise and rise of Evita Perón in Argentina, at the outset. Was she the push behind the president? Or did she ride on his coattails and pick up their momentum where he left off? As the history unfolds, however, this is more like an extrapolation of Macbeth, who begins as a nice guy and ends up drowning in the blood and ghosts of those he has murdered.

Born into indigence, Imelda lost her mother when she was but eight years old. Her first taste of fame was in the form of a beauty title. Eleven days after meeting Ferdinand Marcos, a young politician on his personal trajectory to power, she was his bride. It’s a story plastered with sweet nothings, rich and hypocritical attestations of love and obscene opulence, to say nothing of an unqualified sense of power that turned this pretty young woman into a lipsticked behemoth.

Ferdinand was president of the Philippines for just over 20 years, until his death in 1989. He was the chap who introduced Imelda to people of the ilk of Mao Zedong, Saddam Hussein, Muammar al-Gaddafi, all of whom she felt were delightful. There are moments in this work that make you feel the urge to shriek with laughter at the seemingly staged – but incredibly gullible – manner in which this powdered and posed woman with marshmallow cheeks responds to leading questions. “No, I never stole a golden Buddha,” she offers as a throwaway statement on the head of accusations of ill-begotten wealth. She sits in a Manila apartment crammed with bits of gold and priceless artworks on the wall, bemoaning her poverty.

It’s a balanced and extremely watchable piece of filmography which does not leave a stone unturned in the rolling monster of a story of the Marcoses and what they have done to the Filipino landscape: politically, psychologically, physically. When she comments on how she was buddies with some of the most terrifying despots the modern world has known, you recoil with incredulity. Can she really be that simple? But when you see the surreptitious glances her son, Filipino political Bongbong Marcos casts in her direction, your flesh crawls. It is like being in the presence of the mother of Sybil – she who gave schizophrenia a popular face.

The giraffes are a case in point and an important narrative microcosm to this film. Imelda says she liked pretty things. A closet of 3 000 shoes possibly attests to this. To say nothing of her penchant to buy buildings she thought were pretty. But when she became aware of how pretty zebras and giraffes in Africa were, she went on a spending spree, ordering them, as one may order pastries. The animals arrived and were housed with impunity in one of the islands of the country. To hell with the over 250 families that lived there: they were summarily ousted.

The animals were among the Marcos saga’s casualties. Left to their own devices, they have interbred cross-generationally for decades; and are mutating. It’s a graphic reflection on the untold damage the blind Marcos lust for power and possession took as it was allowed to foment unbridled over the years.

This is an excellently made documentary, created with a fine sense of levity, and not stinting in the voice it gives the Marcos supporters. The presence of the Yturria couple – high flying friends of the Marcoses – is documentary gold. This Texan couple, who fit gloriously into the loud stereotypes of Americans of a certain era are delicious on the eye. They offer insights into the nuances of the oft two-dimensional picture that Imelda evokes, but their physical presence is a sheer delight.

Another moment of documentary gold sees Imelda selecting a framed historic photograph from a range of similar ones on tables. She’s so clumsy that a whole bunch of them around this one fall to the floor and smash; the heavily coiffed woman just keeps on singing her own praises, while someone else attends to the damage. No editorial input is necessary in this telling gaffe.

And then there are the anti-Marcos activists in this work. May Rodriguez was one of the outstanding voices of protest in the violence which went down as part of the Marcos legacy, and when you watch her and other voices in the political framework of the narrative, you realise the potency of interviewing talent and editing expertise that makes this film so important and watchable.

  • The Kingmaker is written and directed by Lauren Greenfield. Produced by Frank Evers and Lauren Greenfield, it is edited by Per K Kirkegaard and features creative input by Lars Skree and Shana Hagan (photographic direction) and Jocelyn Pook (music). It features on the Encounters International South African Documentary Film Festival which runs from 20-30 August 2020, and this year is accessible online and without charge.

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