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A bruising ride on the Bongbong bandwagon

How 'The Kingmaker' warned of a resurgent Marcos regime in the Philippines

Bongbong Marcos, sitting beneath a portrait of his father, photographed by director Lauren Greenfield during filming of "The Kingmaker." (Courtesy of Evergreen Pictures/©Lauren Greenfield) WILLIAM MELLOR March 30, 2022 11:00 JST Published in Nikkei Asia

In a leafy park in Manila's old walled city, Intramuros, I hitched a ride on Bongbong Marcos' political bandwagon.

This was 2015, and the son of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos had just announced he was running for vice president of the Philippines in front of an adoring, hand-picked crowd -- many bused in from Ilocos Norte Province, the family's feudal fiefdom.

During two despotic decades, the late Marcos senior and his acquisitive wife Imelda embezzled as much as $10 billion before being toppled by a popular uprising in 1986, according to a United Nations/World Bank report. And while some of that loot has since been recovered, the Marcos family retains a bottomless war chest of unexplained wealth to fund its political revival, as evidenced by Bongbong's front-running campaign for the upcoming 2022 presidential election.

In 2015, no one outside the country seemed to be paying attention. The handful of other foreigners present at Bongbong's campaign launch that day were mostly members of the U.S. film crew I was working with. And even we were there to make a film about his mother, the seemingly indestructible Imelda. Still, I fought my way through the throng and asked Bongbong for an interview. He replied: "Why not?"

The Marcos children seldom entertain international reporters. But for the next few months, thanks largely to our focus on the less media-averse Imelda, our crew, led by Emmy Award-winning director Lauren Lauren, gained intimate access to the campaign as it barnstormed the country.

The Kingmaker behind the candidate: Imelda Marcos shares the spotlight with Bongbong in 2016. (Courtesy of Evergreen Pictures/©Lauren Greenfield)

We filmed the family paying respects to the waxen-faced embalmed corpse of the dead dictator, displayed then in a glass case in a mausoleum in the garden of the Marcos family mansion in Batac, 470 km north of Manila. We joined the motorcades crisscrossing the family's second stronghold in Leyte, Imelda's home province, where her Romualdez relatives are as powerful as the Marcos clan in Ilocos Norte.

But gradually the family found our fly-on-the-wall reporting too intrusive. Our cameras captured money being handed out like confetti. Our boom microphones picked up embarrassing whispered asides by family members. We turned up uninvited to a gathering of unrepentant former Marcos-era cronies where we heard Bongbong pledge a return to the good old days.

Under the Marcos regime -- which included a nine-year period of formal martial law and a further five years of untrammeled one-couple rule -- at least 75,000 opponents of the regime were jailed, 35,000 tortured and 3,200 killed, according to human rights groups. Between Bongbong's election rallies we peeled off to film harrowing testimony from surviving victims and relatives of those murdered.

That included visiting the Malacanang Palace, the official presidential residence, to interview the then-President Noynoy Aquino, son of the most famous victim of the Marcos years, opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr., who was gunned down in 1983 on the tarmac of Manila airport after flying home from exile.

We then asked Imelda on camera whether, as many believed, she had ordered the Aquino assassination. She replied: "Why would I do that? I had nothing against him except that he talked too much anyway."

Even when Bongbong narrowly lost that 2016 vice-presidential bid and the planned victory party turned into a recrimination-filled wake, we carried on filming, by now convinced that this was not the end of the story. We believed that Bongbong's family, with the connivance of their ally, newly elected President Rodrigo Duterte -- himself an autocrat -- had the money and influence to reinstall a Marcos in the Malacanang Palace in 2022.We acquired footage of Duterte stating that Bongbong's sister, the senator and former Ilocos Norte Gov. Imee Marcos, had helped to finance his campaign, and of the military-style transfer, carried out in secret to avoid protests, of Ferdinand Marcos' body from the family mausoleum to a hallowed plot in Manila's Heroes' Cemetery.

A fallen dynasty was undoubtedly rising again. Bongbong would inherit his father's mantle, with the matriarchal Imelda, who had been such a power behind her husband's throne, once again being "The Kingmaker" -- the title that Greenfield chose for our film.

Meanwhile, the family's suspicions about us had reached new heights. "They think you are working for the CIA," a senior Marcos aide told me in 2019 as he refused further access.

By then, though, we had everything we needed. Thanks to Greenfield's genius and the skill and tenacity of a largely Filipino crew, "The Kingmaker" premiered at the Venice Film Festival later that year and became an international hit, scoring 97% favorable reviews on the aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes and winning accolades that included a Critics' Choice award in New York.

Judging by the latest opinion polls, it looks as though our warning that the Marcoses would regain power was spot on. Bongbong Marcos, teamed with vice-presidential aspirant Sara Duterte, daughter of the outgoing president, is hot favorite to be elected president on May 9. But for me, the success of "The Kingmaker" may prove to be bittersweet. Sure, audiences at the film's 2020 Manila premiere got the message. "Never again to martial law," they chanted as the credits rolled. The film shot to number one on Philippines iTunes and the iWantTFC streaming channel. Then in March, Greenfield made “The Kingmaker” available for free in the Philippines, attracting 3 million additional views.

But could the film really impact the election? As the Philippines Senate minority leader Franklin Drilon told me after the premiere, 60% of Filipinos were not yet born when the 1986 "People Power" revolution swept the Marcoses from power. School children we interviewed for the film were ignorant of what happened during the Marcos years, or misinformed.

"Those who forget the mistakes of the past are condemned to repeat them," former President Aquino, who died last year, says in our film.

One of the most rewarding aspects of journalism and documentary film making is to sound the alarm when a critically important event is about to unfold. "The Kingmaker" did that by raising the specter of a Marcos family second coming. But if Bongbong Marcos wins the presidency on May 9, I'll take no satisfaction from saying "I told you so."

William Mellor was consulting producer on "The Kingmaker."


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