‘She’s an unreliable narrator’: Lauren Greenfield on her Imelda Marcos documentary

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In her staggering film about the controversial former Philippine first lady, the acclaimed Queen of Versailles film-maker faces her most difficult subject yet

At the heart of Lauren Greenfield’s body of work, varied in form from photography to writing to film-making yet remarkably consistent in theme, lies a conundrum. From its very outset, her career has revolved around the trappings of extreme wealth, from the ultra-privileged children of the Los Angeles upper-crusters in her early exhibitions to a pair of nouveau-riche homebuilders for her 2012 documentary breakout The Queen of Versailles. She’s fascinated with the grotesquerie and garishness of new money, watching from a clinical remove as her subjects expose the most tacky, contemptible, pathetic sides of themselves. She’s renowned as a chronicler of the morally deformed, a diagnostic for the deleterious effects that a swollen bank account can have on the brain.

So, why do these people keep agreeing to let her shoot them? What possessed Imelda Marcos, the former Philippine first lady and resurgent political operator, to sit for Greenfield’s latest and perhaps most damning portrait, The Kingmaker?

“Imelda Marcos is incredibly aware of the profile she puts forward,” Greenfield says firmly over coffee at a Manhattan hotel. “In the film, I tried to include the parts that show her art-directing the world around her, moving the sheets and arranging her photos, so that we can see her in this presentational state.”

All manner of articles about the dynastic family, many of them harshly critical, hang framed on the walls of the palatial Marcos estate. It’s just one in a handful of canny symbols in Greenfield’s new feature, a telling encapsulation of the mentality shared by her subjects as they hoist themselves by their own petards. Regardless of whatever light they might be seen in, they’re just glad someone’s looking.

Another one of these “perfect metaphors” first brought Greenfield into Marcos’s orbit and began the project that would expand in scope and ambition to become The Kingmaker. She read a Bloomberg story by the British journalist William Mellor about a quixotic idea Marcos had while on safari, to bring an ark’s worth of the savannah’s animals back to the Philippines and create an island haven for them as a miniature African getaway she could visit whenever she pleased. As it fell into disrepair and the ousting of the Marcos regime left it fully abandoned, it became something like an Ozymandias statue, warning all those looking upon her works to despair.

“I was interested in the contradiction between her personal charisma and its terrible consequences,” Greenfield says. “The animal island was how I get into the story. It was something she just did because she thought it’d be lovely for the Philippines, intending to treat the animals well, then cut to four generations of inbreeding later, they’ve lost all funding and everyone else has been left to pick up the pieces … This was the ultimate extravagance: depopulating an island of its indigenous population just to bring in animals from Africa. It was a strange, unnatural Jurassic Park.”

She continues: “I thought there would be two strands, the first being her coming back to the Philippines as a congresswoman, and the animal island as part of her legacy. It was going to be a historical tale, stuck in the past. What shocked me was how it came rushing into the present.”

There’s a perceptible shift in the winds about halfway through The Kingmaker, as Greenfield realizes her true focus. The first hour plays out not unlike The Queen of Versailles or its follow-up Generation Wealth, a cataloguing of the one per cent’s obscene excesses and the pathologies undergirding them. But the film shifts into a far more urgent, high-stakes register as Marcos attempts to guide her son Bongbong into the seat of the vice-president in 2016, and assists with the current tyrant Rodrigo Duterte’s rise to the presidency. What begins as a peek behind one woman’s gilded curtain pivots into an embedded reporter’s coverage of a power grab with unsettling resonances to the ascent of Trumpism.

“When I began, Bongbong didn’t have a chance in hell of winning the election,” Greenfield recalls. “As he became the frontrunner, I realized [Imelda’s] rewriting of history was taking hold. It wasn’t until Duterte won that I really saw the return of this sort of dictatorship and the movie got an ending. The moral of the story became that those who can’t remember history will certainly repeat it.”

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Photograph: Lauren Greenfield

Marcos displayed what Greenfield calls “a strategic purpose and effect” in her creative relationship to her own record. While her husband’s administration waged a campaign of terror against the country’s poorest citizens for two decades, she hoarded capital obtained through possibly illegal means and put a smiling face on their crimes against humanity. She’s now going all in on revisionism, as if the body count can be erased with a single Orwellian declaration that perception matters more than truth.

“In the very first scene, when Imelda walks into her living room with the Picassos and asks if her tummy looks too big, I asked her to look at my camera,” Greenfield explains. “She says, ‘I should look at you?’ and I say yes, and then she just doesn’t. I wanted to show immediately that there’s a tension between who’s really controlling the story. She’s an unreliable narrator, and I’m allowing her to talk. The key was to check in with others – truth-tellers. I did feel a journalistic obligation, as well as an obligation to history, to make sure the audience knew that Imelda’s version of events was not the only version.”

The most affecting moments come when Greenfield ventures into the villages to speak with survivors of the brutal Marcos policies, which frequently employed rape and other violence as intimidation tactics. For the documentarian, speaking with these women and witnessing the strength with which they revisited their trauma underscored the crucial human toll that Marcos took.

“I tried to show [Imelda’s] humanity, which comes out more when looking at her early life. She was born an orphan, made a life for herself, lived through her husband’s constant cheating,” Greenfield admits. “But she’s responsible for terrible things. For Imelda, over the years, it wasn’t clear whether she was just the wife or really part of it all. This film confirms that she had agency, and that she has it now.”

The film levies a bruising indictment against Marcos from within her direct proximity, a broadside clarified over a five-year editing process that gave Greenfield ample time to think about the efficacy of her actions. She accepted that while her work would be unlikely to wield any sway with Marcos herself – someone inviting a camera crew to follow her every move isn’t prone to self-reflection – it could still have a vital utility. She couldn’t pierce Marcos’s manufactured reality, but she could show it to everyone else. She’ll print the legend, and make sure to clearly label it as such.

“If she saw this movie, and she hasn’t yet, she’d probably be fine with everything she said,” Greenfield muses. “She wouldn’t be surprised, she was right there, fully aware of what she was saying. Now, that we talked to survivors of her regime – that, she wouldn’t like.”

  • The Kingmaker is out in the US on 8 November and in the UK on 13 December

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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