When “The Kingmaker” director Lauren Greenfield began making what would become her latest film, she intended to investigate what had become of the island in the Philippines, Calauit, that had become a reserve for endangered African animals in the mid-1970s.
She thought that the country’s former first lady, Imelda Marcos, would be just one interview of many in her investigation of the island. But Greenfield, the filmmaker behind “Generation Wealth” and “The Queen of Versailles,” found an eager and compelling subject ready to share her life story — or at least her version of it.
“I guess the surprise for me is I thought there might be a redemption element in it, because I filmed her between 85 and 90 and thought maybe she would change her story. But she stuck to her story,” Greenfield told the crowd in a Q&A following an International Documentary Association screening of the film.
The first half of the film follows Marcos as she tells her version of the life she lived as first lady of the Philippines from 1965 until the 1986 People Power Revolution forced her dictator husband, Ferdinand Marcos, out of power and out of the country. (The island, incidentally, was turned into an animal reserve after the Marcoses went on an African safari and she wanted some of the animals shipped back with her.)
“It became clear, even when I first started with the island, that her version of history was not the version of history that anybody else agreed with. And in the beginning, I think what’s happened in the past is people haven’t really taken her seriously, that she’s kind of laughable or delusional or crazy because of some of the things she’s said. And I think she ends up really getting the last laugh because her story got traction. And that was something that really evolved while we were making it,” Greenfield said. “But by the end, especially with her alliance with [current president Rodrigo] Duterte, it became literally deadly serious.”
So while in the first half of the movie, Marcos’ voice is the center of the story, the second half features survivors of her husband’s declaration of martial law and focuses on the political comeback of the Marcos family — Marcos, now 90, is a congresswoman, her oldest daughter is a senator, and her son is a senator and vice presidential candidate.
“I think what happened in the storytelling, though, is that, as I realized that her story was not true and didn’t align with any journalistic or first person account, I did what I haven’t really done in my other movies,” Greenfield said: “I went outside and looked for truth-tellers… who could be these reliable people who could give us perspective on what she was saying. The tricky thing I found in the cutting was that people really believe what the filmmaker puts in front of them. So she would say something like, ‘All of the animals are dead on the island.’ And even if you could see the animals, people still thought that maybe those were old pictures of the animals, or they really believed her. So in the edit, we had to really carefully kind of debunk things right next to when she said them, and I think as the film progresses, you realize she’s an unreliable narrator.”
The film tackles present-day politics in the Philippines and the ties between President Rodrigo Duterte and the Marcos family. While the trailer has gone viral in the Philippines and “The Kingmaker” does have an international distribution deal, it does show some of the brutal killings that have occurred under Duterte’s rule and Greenfield isn’t certain that her film will get a release there.
“We’re really hopeful that we can show it in the Philippines. There’s another film that came out this season about Duterte’s street killings, ‘On the President’s Orders,’ which I guess Duterte has criticized and said that they staged things for drama,” she said. “He’s done that with some of the photographs too. So I don’t know. It’s not a place that welcomes free press. It’s one of the most dangerous places for journalists. So we’ll see if they welcome the film.”
The IDA Documentary Screening Series brings some of the year’s most acclaimed documentary films to the IDA community and members of industry guilds and organizations. Films selected for the Series receive exclusive access to an audience of tastemakers and doc lovers during the important Awards campaigning season from September through November. For more information about the series, and a complete schedule, visit IDA.