By Russell Bailey
Director Lauren Greenfield has steadily built up a reputation as one of the finest voices in documentary cinema. She follows up her fascinatingly sprawling “Generation Wealth” (2018) with “The Kingmaker” (2019). Where her last work focused on many subjects to weave a portrait of late-era capitalism, here she initially focuses on Imelda Marcos. The former first lady of the Philippines, she is first seen as a peculiar figure, lavishly dressed and handing out moment to poverty-stricken children from the window of her minibus.
Much of the first act of “The Kingmaker” comes from Imelda’s perspective, offering an idealised telling of her life and her husband’s regime, with their time in power present as a golden age for the country. Doubt lingers for the audience, with an unspoken awareness that Imelda is stringing out a tall tale. And yet it is often amusing, with this out-of-step figure proving an oddly charismatic figure to follow, seemingly oblivious to the world around her. The early portions often resemble Greenfield’s stellar “The Queen of Versailles” (2012), with Greenfield lulling the audience into a false comfort.
There is darkness here, victims of the Marcos’ regime but Greenfield cleverly keeps back key strands of information. The film revisits the past repeatedly, adding colour and depth to the romanticised version Imelda is happy to tell. When the punches of the reality of the situation begin to hit they hit all the harder due to Greenfield and editor Per K. Kirkegaard skilful work.
The film took five years to complete, with a seemingly simple starting point (exploring both Imelda and the lives of those impacted by her time in a leadership role) sprawling out to take an increasing number of players. It feels strange to approach a discussion of a documentary like this and seeking to avoid spoilers, but for those who are not familiar with Filipino history their jaws will firmly be lodged on the floor by the final moments.
“The Kingmaker” becomes in its second half an exploration of legacy and how the past can be warped and shaped. It’s a film that slowly becomes breathtakingly relevant as truth becomes lost amongst the spin of a family seeking to redeem their name, both in public and private (with varying degrees of success).
The endearing comedic presence of Imelda evaporates before audiences’ eyes as the audience cottons on to what is going on. What is remarkable is the access Greenfield has gained, with “The Kingmaker” having access to figures and behind-the-scenes footage that takes the film right into the centre of Philippines’ politics. What Greenfield has achieved with “The Kingmaker” is a terrifying warning of where Western politics could very well be heading over the next few years and one of the best documentaries since, well, “The Queen of Versailles”.