TIFF Review: ‘The Kingmaker’

Lauren Greenfield tackles the lifestyles of the rich and famous with portrait of Imelda Marcos

6 mins read

The Kingmaker
(USA, Denmark, 100 min.)
Dir. Lauren Greenfield
Programme: TIFF Docs (Canadian premiere)

Lauren Greenfield has become an award winning documentarian thanks to films like Generation Wealth and The Queen of Versailles, which illustrate the obnoxiousness of obscene wealth as well as the power and problems that surround individuals who possess it. A kind of dark spin on the Lifestyles of the Rich And Famous ethos, her films have often been a mix of profound social commentary mixed with a dose of morbid fascination. Greenfield’s latest, The Kingmaker, ups the ante, taking all her gifts and focusing on the perfect subject for this type of investigation, Imelda Marcos.

From the opening shots watching Marcos, the notorious former First Lady of the Philippines, stripping off bills and handing them to street children as she drives through Manilla, we know we’re already witnessing something strange and manipulative. Marcos spent decades at the forefront of her husband’s totalitarian regime, serving as his surrogate, meeting with presidents and kings around the world. Beyond the tales of her outrageously extensive footwear, Madame Marcos’ effect on the international stage was massive, and the film does well to illustrate the effect she had.

Equally, the film finds plenty of ways of demonstrating her sheer obliviousness to those she encounters, maintaining a regal stature that belies her humble beginnings as a beauty contestant that caught the eye of an ambitious solider and politician named Ferdinand Marcos. Her latest project has been to resuscitate the legacy of her family name, to bolster the political power of her family and to once again reshape the country into one that cherishes the legacy of her late husband.

It’s remarkable to watch the ways – some subtle, some overt – in which a woman of this stature navigates not only the connection with her staff but how she slyly behaves in situations as disparate as a political rally or hospital visit. We are witnessing a different kind of individual, one used to breathing rarified air, using all her guile and acumen to quite literally bend history to her will. While Greenfield’s other subjects played in their own tiny areas, we’re seeing someone able to shape an entire country’s will, and it’s at times breathtaking to witness.

Greenfield structures in statements and footage of activists and victims of the Marcos regime, which undercut much of the pageantry and obfuscations we hear from the main subject. The film offers a full and complete articulation of the Marcos mission while presenting dissenting voices in careful and concise ways. This isn’t some didactic refutation, but instead brilliant contextualization, balancing the real travails of Filipinos with a political system that operates with a brazen disregard for rights and freedoms.

The film’s greatest strength lies in how it merges Greenfield’s gift for illustrating ostentation with the rise of the current President Rodrigo Duterte and his reshaping of the country. This isn’t some conspiratorial swing for the fences. Marcos is explicit in her desire for a return to “order” that she feels lacking, and the crushed playground at a hospital she helped build is a perfect visual metaphor for what she wants to reclaim. At the same time, while it’s easy at first to be sucked in by her charisma and charm, Marcos’ steely determination underscores a legacy of brutality and murder, with a barbaric military rule the true legacy of her husband’s regime.

The end result is a doc that’s ambitious in scope, remarkable in access, and a perfect primer for what’s taking place in a nation undergoing enormous change and turmoil. It’s a film, which could be effectively twinned with Petra Costa’s Brazilian doc The Edge of Democracy, another doc that goes beyond the headlines to show how right wing demagogues are achieving political power not only through illicit manipulation but because of the inadequacy and corruption of opposition leaders. Both films show that totalitarians play the game of politics at a level that their opponents simply cannot compete.

The Kingmaker is a highly entertaining, highly provocative film that speaks not only to the local story it documents but to a global force of revisionism and populism that’s shaping democracies throughout the world. With great subtlety and dexterity, Greenfield draws a unique portrait of one of the most impressive and frustrating characters on the world stage, a woman of rare gifts whose hubris feels almost warranted. Imelda Marcos’ shamelessness is almost as grandiose as the paintings that she swaps out to avoid being seized, her aggrandizement born from previous and continuing success. Through this film we are granted a portrait that’s beautifully illustrated, contradictions and all, resulting in one of the greatest works of non-fiction of the year.

Visit the POV TIFF Hub for more coverage from this year’s festival.

Jason Gorber is a film journalist and member of the Toronto Film Critics Association. He is the Managing Editor/Chief Critic at ThatShelf.com and a regular contributor for POV Magazine, RogerEbert.com and CBC Radio. His has written for Slashfilm, Esquire, The Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Screen Anarchy, HighDefDigest, Birth.Movies.Death, IndieWire and more. He has appeared on CTV NewsChannel, CP24, and many other broadcasters. He has been a jury member at the Reykjavik International Film Festival, Calgary Underground Film Festival, RiverRun Film Festival, TIFF Canada's Top 10, Reel Asian and Fantasia's New Flesh Award. Jason has been a Tomatometer-approved critic for over 20 years.

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