Imelda as Ibong Adarna
Watching “The Kingmaker,” the documentary on Imelda Marcos and her family’s return to power after being driven out from Malacañang and the country in 1986, brought back memories of a childhood visit to Manila Zoo. I clearly remember the parrot that cussed in Filipino to the delight of the crowd, and the monkey that masturbated in front of a mob that egged it on. People gathered in front of these two animals were looking into a mirror of their baser selves.
A similar experience awaited those who turned up for the four SRO “The Kingmaker” screenings at the Cultural Center of the Philippines the other day. The documentary made me relive the fascination and fear I felt being face to face with a king cobra in Manila Zoo. A sheet of glass separated me from the cobra and made me feel safe. Imelda in “The Kingmaker” had two layers of separation: time, and the fact that she was just an image on a screen I had to endure for an hour and 45 minutes. But do not be mistaken: The Iron Butterfly is as lethal as a spitting cobra that need not bite to disable or kill its prey.
We are disarmed by her beauty in archival photos and footage. We are charmed by her on-camera sincerity and vulnerability. She is truly charismatic and, one-on-one, can charm anyone and anything, including a stone. She admits that one of her strengths was being underestimated as a woman. She plays us as we laugh at the outrageous things she is allowed to say in public. When we dismiss her as delusional, we have, in fact, been enchanted.
Truth is the only antidote: drone shots of the squalor of Manila, and the authentic voices of Etta Rosales, May Rodriguez, Pete Lacaba, Andy Bautista, Noynoy Aquino, and the old woman who was evicted from her home in Calauit island to make way for a horde of animals imported from Africa in 1975. If the past does not move you, the hushed voices of widows and orphans of EJK victims today should. They cry in vain for justice and retribution from a heartless administration that, if figures are accurate, has killed more people in three years compared to the 20 years of Marcos.
For the historian, the odd man out in the film is Beth Day Romulo, who had no direct, personal experience of what she was talking about. She merely recast rumors from the martial law years as truth, her authority emanating from anecdotes shared by her late husband, the Marcos foreign minister Carlos P. Romulo.
In making the film, Lauren Greenfield had Imelda fact-checked and was surprised that almost everything she said was a lie. It took five years for Greenfield to wake up from the spell, while the Philippines has yet to wake up from the recurring nightmare of a repeat of the Marcos period. Greenfield, and before her Veronica Pedrosa and Ramona Diaz, focused their cameras on Imelda and left empty-handed. They received no hint of remorse, not even a faint acknowledgment of the excesses of martial law that she represents. Greenfield attempts to expose her subject, but in the age of social media even truth is relative. As Imelda declares: ”Perception is real, truth is not.”
What is it like to be face to face with pure falsehood? Years ago, Imelda invited me to a dinner that stretched to 3 a.m. I was a willing victim who watched old movies of her foreign travels and heard about people she met along the way: Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro, the Shah of Iran, Saddam Hussein, Moammar Gadhafi, Nicolae Ceausescu. A rogues’ gallery of corrupt, murderous world leaders all mercifully dead. As she showed me piles of land titles, stock certificates, the documentation of unimaginable wealth, she said, chuckling: “If you know your net worth, you are not worth much.” Then, pointing to piles of legal records, she said: “There are 380 cases pending against me, that’s more than the days of a year.”
When she bid me goodbye, she asked why I didn’t ask any difficult questions. “Because if I did, you might not invite me over again to conduct a proper recorded interview,” I replied. Looking me in the eye, she said: “I know you don’t believe much of what I told you, but I appreciate that you allowed me to share my side of the story.”
Social media platforms are now rewriting Philippine history from her viewpoint, and that is the clear and present danger. Do not allow the Ibong Adarna to sing you to sleep and poop on you. Face “The Kingmaker” armed with the truth as a sharp blade with which to cut your arms, and facts as the kalamansi to juice on the open wounds. Only then can we stay awake and remain vigilant in these dark days.
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