There is a popular quote from the book Philippine Society and Revolution: “Mayaman ang Pilipinas pero naghihirap ang sambayanang Pilipino.” (“The Philippines is rich but the Filipino people are poor.”)
The Kingmaker, the explosive and controversial new documentary from American filmmaker Lauren Greenfield, establishes this from the film’s first few scenes. Former First Lady Imelda Marcos flies aboard a helicopter, overlooking the urban landscape divided into the lowly slums and the towering skyscrapers. She reminisces the supposed grandiosity of Manila during her late husband’s 21-year rule, then hands out money to street vendors from the window of her private car.
In many ways, Greenfield shows Imelda Marcos, her family, and her political allies as the very personification of wealth inequality in the country. The film recognizes that the excesses that Imelda and her cohorts enjoy necessitate the lack of basic resources for most Filipinos. The ruling elites’ extravagance is a direct result of decades-long corruption and theft of the taxpayers’ money.
Unlike most documentaries on the Marcoses, The Kingmaker does not focus on the Martial Law era alone. Greenfield shockingly presents the extent of their political influences as a strong, gigantic force—an ideology, even—able to transcend the confines of government positions. They had already achieved an iconic, almost cult-like status among their loyalists; the Marcoses had likened themselves to deities, personas to be praised and worshipped, saviors of Philippine society.
In one of the film’s memorable moments, Imelda proclaims, “perception is real, and the truth is not.” As if staying true to her identity as a despot, she reveals without any hint of remorse how her family had weaponized mythmaking and the post-truth phenomenon to maintain their connections in the government. The Marcoses had never really been removed from power; they had always lurked in the shadows like vampires in the night, looking for that perfect opportunity to prey on the Filipino people once more, all the while taking advantage of the prevailing ruling class ideologies and the chronic crisis of the Philippine economy.
This is where Greenfield’s filmmaking style and liberal politics reveal their weaknesses. First, if the aim is to critique the dangers of the post-truth era, its insistence on providing a “fair” avenue for the Marcoses to air their version of our history poses some problems. Though the film is evidently anti-Marcos, it still presents a plurality of truths that is in high risk of misinterpretation for some viewers. To put it bluntly, the Marcoses need to shut up, once and for all. They have been enjoying this “fairness” for a long time already, to a point where it has now become unfair to those who have been victimized by their family and are still fighting for the elusive justice.
Second, the film dichotomizes Philippine politics between the Aquinos and the Marcoses. Greenfield presents these big personalities as the primary movers of history, only providing a brief airtime for ordinary citizens. As a result, the film myopically views this entire Marcos debacle as something solvable by just rewiring how the system works. It cannot envision a society outside the current socio-political set-up. Greenfield, after all, is an outsider to Philippine politics, and it takes more than mere research to actually identify with the struggles of the Filipino people.
If anything, The Kingmaker’s primary merits lie in the critical film culture it reinvigorates among moviegoers. This film is not something that viewers can just passively watch and then forget afterwards. It necessitates a critical view on the Marcoses and even on itself, one that can potentially raisethe discourse on the importance of political film consumption. It can be best appreciated as a springboard of discussion on the Marcoses and the bigger reign of the elite class, rather than an accurate documentation of the lasting effects of the Marcos dictatorship.
More than the film itself, the experience of watching The Kingmaker during its premiere at Cine Adarna in UP Diliman was more engrossing. It was akin to being part of one big political and cultural collective that caters to the spirit of activism and resistance, using the film as a text from which to analyze the system of elite rule in the country. And indeed, it was in UPFI Director Patrick Flores’ and UP Diliman Chancellor Michael Tan’s opening remarks, and in the post-screening panel discussion with activists, where the strong sentiment of anti-fascist unity was fully realized.
It is not coincidental that the Philippine release of this documentary also coincides with the 50th anniversary of the First Quarter Storm. The Kingmaker reminds us that if history truly repeats itself, it is not only in the form of exploitation and fascism but more so in the resistance and struggle to fight back against oppressors. For every Imelda Marcos and Rodrigo Duterte, there comes forth a multitude of Pete Lacabas and May Rodriguezes—human rights activists willing to take the fight to the streets should a new dictatorship arise (or revive) once more. More importantly, The Kingmaker is a testament to radical cinema’s ability to transcend the film text and expand into the discourse and discussion surrounding it, and in the process appropriate the flawed elements into instruments of social change.