Hidden Gem: 'Kingmaker' Lifts Lid on Political Corruption in the Philippines

'Kingmaker' Film Still — Publicity — H 2019
Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival

Lauren Greenfield's documentary puts first lady Imelda Marcos under the microscope: "She does exactly what she wants to do."

There’s a moment in Lauren Greenfield’s documentary The Kingmaker when former Philippine first lady Imelda Marcos gives the game away. Almost.

"Perception is real, and the truth is not," she says.

Marcos is at the fulcrum of Greenfield’s film, which screens at TIFF on Sept. 9, 11 and 12. She sits down for extensive interviews, is followed by the cameras out among the people and is the primary focus of discussion among the majority of the characters in the film, including family and friends, her opponents, and victims of the brutal treatment meted out to those who opposed the government of her husband, Ferdinand Marcos.

Emmy Award nominee Greenfield (The Queen of Versailles) readily admits that during the four years that it took to piece together The Kingmaker, she at times didn’t really know what — or whom — to believe. The result is a riveting exposé of the tangled web that the now 90-year-old Marcos and her family have weaved in and around their nation since the 1960s.

During that early period, Marcos was named Miss Manila, met her future husband and helped guide him to the power he held over the nation from 1965 until 1986, before the couple was forced to flee under a cloud of corruption charges that included accusations that they’d stolen billions from government coffers.

What Greenfield found she was witnessing was "a clear repetition of history," as Marcos and her family are slowly revealed to still be wielding considerable power and influence decades after what was, on the surface at least, a very public fall from grace. "I thought she was going to be very different as a character," Greenfield says. "I kind of imagined that she was more of an empress dowager, maybe someone who was reflecting in her old age, that there would be a redemption story. Instead, I was really surprised by the comeback story."

There are notable parallels, she says. "In some ways it is so Trumpian. In the beginning, some of the truth-tellers in the film almost treat her as a laughable presence."

The Showtime production has been picked up for international release by Dogwoof, but Greenfield had no news on a possible release in the Philippines when she spoke to THR. Marcos herself was apparently unconcerned about what the film was turning up and issued no request for a look at the final cut. "She was incredibly difficult in some ways, and in some ways she was incredibly giving," says Greenfield. "She speaks her mind. Maybe it’s being a celebrity, maybe it's being a former head of state, maybe it's just being Imelda — but she does exactly what she wants to do."

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Sept. 8 daily issue at the Toronto Film Festival.