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New Imelda Marcos film offers her version of Philippine history

Linus Chua, Clarissa Batino and Andreo Calonzo

Bloomberg

 /  Sun, November 3, 2019  /  10:08 am
New Imelda Marcos film offers her version of Philippine history

Former Philippines First Lady Imelda Marcos shopping amongst supporters in Vican City, Philippines on Feb. 19, 2012. (Shutterstock/Stephen Bures)

Is Imelda Marcos -- formidable even at age 90 -- rewriting history?

A new documentary suggests the widow of the late Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos is trying very hard to do so -- and not merely to gloss over excesses from diamonds stuffed in diapers to access to 170 bank accounts.

The Showtime production, set to open Nov. 8, depicts a woman intent on whitewashing the past for a clean path to power for her only son, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr, 62. He’s expected to make a bid for the presidency in 2022 after losing a tight race to be vice president in 2016. He is still contesting the results.

Being president is his “destiny,” the former first lady said in the film.

Forgetting truth

“Perception is real, and the truth is not,” Imelda said in the film. “So the past is past. There are so many things in the past that we should forget. In fact it’s no longer there.”

A 2013 Bloomberg News story about a Philippine island safari -- complete with animals brought in from Africa by the Marcos family -- was the original idea for the film. But instead of opening with giraffes and zebras, “The Kingmaker” started with Imelda in a Manila slum, handing out cash to beggars from the back seat of her car, followed by a fistful of 1,000 peso ($19.65) bills at a children’s hospital.

“I got in through this historical extravagance, but then the political story kind of swept me into this look at the present and the connection between wealth and power, where you can buy votes and where you can influence the social media,” Lauren Greenfield, the director for the film, said in an interview in Los Angeles on Monday. “Their rewriting of history became the narrative thread of the film. In one generation, they could redo their brand and come back.”

Among Imelda’s takes in the film on historical events include:

  • The Marcoses didn’t flee in 1986 amid the infamous massive street protest and accusations of corruption that drove them from power. “We were kidnapped,” she said of their five-year exile.
  • Likewise for the eight-year martial law her husband imposed. They were the “best Marcos years,” she said, because they gave Filipinos “sovereignty, freedom, justice, human rights.”
  • Even though successive governments recovered about $4 billion of the family’s ill-gotten wealth, often symbolized by her 3,000 pairs of shoes left behind in the palace, she responded that “they found no skeletons but found only beautiful shoes.”

Imee Marcos, Imelda’s daughter who was elected to the Senate in May, hasn’t replied to a mobile phone text seeking her family’s comment on the film.

Bloomberg LP, the parent of Bloomberg News, provided financial support for the film.

Fake news and money

Andres Bautista had investigated the Marcos family as head of the Presidential Commission on Good Government and later had a run-in with Bongbong’s vice presidential bid as chairman of the Commission on Elections. For him, holding on to the past is crucial for the country’s future.

“To say the past is no longer there is them trying to scrub clean the past, which is very dangerous,” Bautista, who’s living in exile in Oklahoma and was featured in the film in both government roles, said in a phone interview. “It really identifies the challenges that are especially faced in the Philippines -- how fake news and money is being used to rewrite history.”

Still, Bongbong has the backing of President Rodrigo Duterte, who opened the door for Ferdinand Marcos’ remains to be buried at the Heroes’ Cemetery. He also has name recognition in a country where dynastic politics is common and embraced.

Almost 40 percent of Philippine legislators have links to politically-connected families, according to a 2012 study by authors including economics professor Ronald Mendoza. Duterte’s father was a former governor, and his two predecessors were children of past presidents.

Read also: Philippines convicts Imelda Marcos of graft

President Marcos redux?

By continuing with his protest over the outcome over the 2016 vice presidential bid, Bongbong’s keeping his political narrative active until the next elections, according to Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform. The film may not affect the next presidential polls because the younger electorate may not relate to the near decade-long martial law and the Marcos family’s exile.

“It depends on the audience,” Casiple said. “It will trigger remembrance among the old generation, but the younger ones may not appreciate history.”

Bongbong’s lawyer George Garcia declined to comment on his potential presidential run in 2022.

After 100 days of filming over five years, Greenfield said it’s possible Bongbong could become the next president of the Philippines, especially with the backing of Duterte, an enduringly popular politician.

“Imelda gets the last laugh here,” said Greenfield, an Emmy award winner. “I think we’ve underestimated her by acting like she’s crazy, and that’s a mistake that a lot of people in the Philippines made. She has a lot of agency, and with the money, she has a lot of power in a place where money is a very important part to rising to power.”