Director Lauren Greenfield reveals what she learned from spending time with the notorious Filipino politician.
During filming of The Kingmaker, Imelda Marcos with Lauren Greenfield and William Mellor
In The Kingmaker, documentary filmmaker Lauren Greenfield uncovers the real Imelda Marcos. Since 2014, the documentarian has had inside access to the former first lady of the Philippines—who has long made headlines for her obscene, reportedly ill-gotten wealth (one word: shoes), and for serving as one half of a controversial regime that ruled the Philippines via martial law for several years. One thing Greenfield observed frequently during her time with Marcos? The Filipino politician, now 90, allegedly travels everywhere with cash, so that she has it on hand to disperse to impoverished citizens. In the clip above, debuting exclusively on Vanity Fair, Marcos visits a hospital and starts handing out cash to children who have cancer.
“She was always giving money like that,” Greenfield says in a recent phone interview. That, she soon realized, was “part of the paradox” of Marcos: She was a generous woman on the surface, handing out money that her family had allegedly stolen from its own citizens.
The Showtime documentary was born after Greenfield (The Queen of Versailles, Generation Wealth) read a Bloomberg article by journalist William Mellor about Calauit, a Philippine island that became one of Marcos’s ridiculous pet projects. In the 1970s, as detailed in the documentary, she decided to kick all the residents off the island and replace them with animals from Kenya, like zebras and giraffes, in order to turn it into a safari park. After the Marcoses fled the Philippines in 1986, resources on the island dwindled, and the animals were left to fend for themselves; inbreeding ran rampant. When residents moved back to the island, they were forced to reckon with their feral new neighbors. Greenfield visited Calauit during the making of the documentary, interviewing residents and exploring the remote location.
“It’s really, really off the grid,” she said. “There’s no cell service, there’s no water, there’s no food, and there’s no electricity—except for a generator that they don’t use, because it’s too expensive.”
While the island was “kind of magical,” Greenfield said, it was “also tragic because of the inbreeding, and because the people who were kicked off of the island [have to] navigate living with the animals.... It was a really powerful metaphor for the unexpected consequences of wealth and power.”
As the filmmaker began doing her research, she became more interested in what happened to the Marcos family, and how they navigated their way back into the public eye in the Philippines after being exiled. “I was kind of blown away to discover that she [Imelda] had gone back to the Philippines and become a congresswoman,” she said. “And the way she had not just survived, but thrived and reinvented herself after they had been kicked out of the country.”
In The Kingmaker, Marcos sits down for several interviews, and allows Greenfield‘s crew to follow her everywhere—from her home to her many cash-laden visits to people across the country. Mellor connected Greenfield with Marcos, who was initially very open to the idea of the documentary. “[Imelda’s] always been kind of open to the Western media and enjoyed that attention,” Greenfield said. “And I think she also wanted to tell her story.”
She found that Marcos was willing to talk about anything from her childhood, to her shoe collection, to accusations that her husband had assassinated political opponents like Benigno Aquino Jr. The only thing she wouldn’t discuss? Donald Trump, who had allegedly previously done business with Marcos. Greenfield assumes that Marcos may have declined to talk about him out of respect for his presidency.
The stakes of the documentary appeared higher, according to Greenfield, after her son, Bongbong Marcos, began his campaign for vice president, a closely watched race that he ultimately lost to Leni Robredo in 2016. As a result, The Kingmaker folds the race into the narrative, bringing the Marcos-family saga full circle. What began as a project tentatively titled Fantasy Island instead sprawls into an examination of Imelda’s rise to international stardom, the Marcos family’s influence on the country, and the devastating ripple effects that led to the election of current president Rodrigo Duterte—a controversial leader who has repeatedly made brow-raising remarks and has led a violent war on drugs. The Kingmaker is set to hit theaters this fall.