Pillars of Philosophy and Gowns for the Poor; Ramona Diaz on “Imelda”
by Claiborne Smith
One of the first voiceovers in Ramona Diaz‘s engrossing documentary “Imelda,” about Imelda Marcos, the deposed former first lady of the Philippines, concerns the woman’s shoes. That seems only fitting — when the Marcos regime crumbled in 1986, Mrs. Marcos gained notoriety in the United States largely because 3,000 pairs of her shoes were reported to have been found in the presidential palace. Her husband Ferdinand may have named himself President for Life of the Philippines, but it was Imelda who always seemed to galvanize the most attention.
The quip about the shoes heard early in the doc dismisses the scandal as an inaccurate portrayal of a complex woman. It’s a deft move by the filmmaker, who, early on, clues the audience in that although Imelda Marcos is vain and ruthless enough to acquire all those shoes (among many other trappings) while much of the Philippine populace was wallowing in poverty, the public knows very little about her.
“Imelda” delivers on its early promise to reveal Mrs. Marcos’ complexity. It is a meaty, bemused, cogent portrait of a cosmopolitan, cunning, and often funny woman who has one very nutty philosophy of life (see below). indieWIRE contributor Claiborne Smith first saw “Imelda” at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival in March after its the five packed screenings at Sundance. He spoke with Diaz recently about the documentary, which opens at the Film Forum in New York on Wednesday and in San Francisco, Chicago, San Diego, and Honolulu on Friday.
indieWIRE: One of the things that I kept wondering while watching “Imelda” was how a person is allowed to spend as much time as you obviously did with one of the world’s (formerly) most powerful women…
Ramona Diaz: It seems now that getting access was actually the easy part. And I think she said yes for many reasons, but mostly because I asked at the right time: she was no longer in power, she had been back from exile in Hawaii, she was no longer in the attention of the media, and I think she was missing that. Like all people in her position, they miss that kind of attention. And also maybe because I’m Filipina; I was born and raised there. And I was very honest with her — I told her, “It’s not propaganda, but neither is it going to be a hit piece. You’re going to have your say, and if you want to cover your philosophy, I want to cover that. You keep talking about beauty, let’s talk about that.” It’s to her credit that although it took me a lot of years to raise the money, when I went back two or three years later, she didn’t back out, she honored that commitment.
This is a woman who in my childhood and teenage years was larger than life. The sun rose and set around what the first lady did that day because those were martial law years in the Philippines. You couldn’t escape the comings and goings of Mrs. Marcos, so to meet her and just to spend time with her, it was surreal.
iW: Did she set down any rules saying she wouldn’t talk about certain subjects?
Diaz: No, but that’s not to say she answered everything. I had certain topics I wanted to discuss; I had big themes and certain stories I had heard her relate before, so we touched upon those. This woman has been covered by the media, it’s just getting deeper that’s important.
iW: Like how?
Diaz: By spending time. We weren’t there for two hours, we were there for an entire month. She got sick of us. I don’t think she realized that when I told her we were going to be there for a month. I told her, “We’ll follow whatever comprises your day. We’ll just be there; we’ll just hang out. If you want to do an interview, we’ll do that. Whatever you want.” I don’t think she realized that it was really tiring to have us there 24 hours a day. If I wasn’t satisfied with her answer, I’d ask it again the next day and sometimes she would ignore it but then I’d ask it again. And then if she felt like answering it that day, she’d give me a long answer, like in the case of the Aquino assassination [Ferdinand Marcos’ political rival Benigno Aquino was assassinated in 1983, and was a precipitating factor in the Marcos’ demise]. Finally she said, “We had nothing to gain, for heaven’s sake. He was no threat to us.”
iW: There’s this moment in the film when you let her explain the 10 pillars of her philosophy. Did you expect her to do that?
Diaz: When I was researching the movie, I talked to a lot of journalists and they said, “Ask her about her picture graphs.” And I said, “What’s that?” They said, “It’s really difficult to explain; just ask her, she can tell you.” Apparently she told all of them about it. When I asked her, she goes, “Oh, yeah, it’s in this book, “Circles of Life.” Read it; it’s in there.” And when I did read it, and told her, she just jumped in; what you see in the film is probably 1/20th of her entire philosophy. It was insane. I was attracted to it because at first it makes sense and then progressively she loses me and my brain can’t catch up with it.
I explained to my editor the experience of being with Mrs. Marcos and she would say, “The film has to reflect that.” It’s a crazy time with Mrs. Marcos — everything is sped up but then there are slow-motion parts. It’s all-encompassing when you’re with her. It’s no wonder that the people who were part of her inner circle really were enamored of her because once in a while, you really have to step outside of her world and see that there is this reality that’s sort of pushed to the background with her. She has that kind of personality that really encourages cult members.
iW: You did a lot of research before you started shooting. Was there anything during the actual filming that surprised you?
Diaz: I was just surprised that she was nice. I think she is still accountable for all the very egregious things that happened during the Marcos years. She’s never been held accountable, but there are still court cases against her. But someone once said that all those people who are in power really believe what they are doing, so it’s not as if Mrs. Marcos gets up and says, “I’m going to be a jerk today.” She wakes up and says, “I’m going to order 15 gowns so I can look good for the poor.” And she truly believes that!