After documenting one of Florida’s most opulent homeowners in The Queen of Versailles and rich people across the world in Generation Wealth, Lauren Greenfield’s newest film, The Kingmaker, looks at a different kind of power, one that money alone can’t buy. Traveling to the Philippines, she gained an audience with Imelda Marcos, whose legendary shoe collection alone made her the subject of worldwide gossip. But beyond the shiny trinkets, silky outfits, and shoes, Greenfield found a more disturbing story about the charming widow of a former dictator — one of torture, cruelty, and support for the latest ruthless Philippines president, Rodrigo Duterte.
Greenfield spoke with Hyperallergic about how she got the story, what she learned, and why the whole world should know the full story behind Marcos. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Hyperallergic: What first piqued your interest in Imelda Marcos?
Lauren Greenfield: She had been a kind of fascinating, iconic reference for me and my work on wealth and consumerism. My last project, Generation Wealth, chronicled 25 years of my looking at wealth and materialism in culture. Her shoes were an iconic reference, and I was thinking about them when I was in, like, Jackie Siegel’s closet [for Queen of Versailles]. I didn’t think I would actually have the chance to meet her or film her until I read an article in Bloomberg about her being back in Manila as a congresswoman. What was so interesting to me was a chronicle of this island that she had created in the ’70s, basically a very ill-advised decision to bring African animals to the middle of the South China Sea, and it was still there. I thought the island would be this great symbol to look at for the long-term consequences of the decisions of the wealthy and powerful. She made this island on an impulse, and then decades later, people and animals are still living with the consequences of what was.
That was how I started, but then when the election started happening, and when Bongbong, her son, ran for vice president and started getting some real momentum, the story really changed for me in terms of thinking about the connection between wealth and political power, and the ability to rewrite history. By rewriting history and with money, they were able to have a comeback story.
H: Since you started working on the project in 2014, what was your experience of continuing to film as the story kept changing?
LG: The political changes, especially after the results of the election in 2016, with Duterte winning, were really unbelievable. Shortly thereafter, Trump won here, and that was also unexpected. So both of those things really affected the story that I wanted to tell.
In the beginning, I think people believed Duterte would act presidential and not, like, advocate killing people in the streets. But no, that was exactly what happened, and you see at the end of the film that within four months, on any given night in Manila, there are terrifying scenes of people just getting murdered, which we ended up following. I didn’t think when we began camping out on the animal island that we would end up shooting dead bodies on the streets of Manila. I thought it was going to be a story about the past.
H: Was it hard to approach the Marcos family or Imelda? She seemed to really open up to you to a certain extent.
LG: She likes to talk, and that’s helpful for a documentary filmmaker. I was introduced to her by the analyst who did the Bloomberg article. He had spent some time with her, and she had affection for him. She’s a little bit mercurial, in that you could be waiting several days or a week to get an audience, but then when she invites you in, she could be talking to you for five hours. In fact, one day when we did an interview, it went like three hours and I barely got in a question in edgewise. There was one interview where they had said, “You can only have an hour because she has a dinner,” and then she just kept telling stories. Her staff was like, “Okay, it’s time” and she was like, “Oh no, I can change it” and she kept talking. She invited us to stay for dinner.
She really is very personable and has a lot of candor, as well as generosity in terms of her time and sharing it with you. I think that was what was really interesting to me about her character, the paradox between this nice person and the terrible consequences of the regime she was complicit with, and her agency in bringing in Duterte and being complicit in the sins of that regime as well.
H: You also spoke to a number of people who either survived the Marcos regime or had spoken out against them, who are almost entirely left out of Imelda’s version of events. How did you find them and get them to talk on the record?
LG: We have this incredible Filipino producer, Marissa Polotan, who really helped me, educated me on the voices on the other side and also helped me find [them]. Once I realized that Marcos was an unreliable narrator, I needed them to tell what happened.
H: You have a signature style when filming wealthy women in worlds of their own, and Imelda clearly has her own narrative that she believes. How do you decide the camera setup to make it feel like the audience is having an intimate conversation with the subject, and that they also get a sense of the world inside their head?
LG: Well, the interviews are a lot like my photographic portraits. I was influenced by Arnold Newman and this idea of the environmental portrait, where what is around the person is as [much a part of] storytelling as what they say. With Imelda, there was literally an embarrassment of riches. I had her sit on this couch, and in her living room behind her are priceless works by Picasso and Impressionist paintings. You see all of these gilded things on her coffee table, all these gilded frames with their pictures of her family from back in the day.
She wasn’t doing that much running around. I tried to use the interviews as verite and really incorporate the nonverbal moments and the moments between her and her maids — when she’s asking her servants if she looks alright and checks her makeup — to use those for storytelling and then contrast that with the truth-tellers, the survivors of torture and martial law. Their interviews were very simple, often [with] a plain background almost reminiscent of a safehouse or a modest home, completely unadulterated and adorned. It’s these voices, no makeup, just telling their stories.
The Kingmaker is now available to stream on Showtime.