Lauren Greenfield is an American documentarist with a special interest in the thorny issue of privilege. She first broke through with 2012's The Queen of Versailles, which looks more than ever like one of the defining docs of a decade in which the rich got richer than ever before; after taking a pasting for 2018's Generation Wealth, which seemed keener to flaunt its own access than analyse what its interviewees were doing and saying, Greenfield has returned with a meaty subject and a fascinating, terrifying film. In 2014, the filmmaker was granted an audience with Imelda Marcos, as the shoe-loving widow of the disgraced Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos set out to elevate the couple's son Ferdinand Jr., known locally as Bongbong, to elected office. Presumably Marcos thought a film would restore the clan to the public eye (and their hearts) after several decades in which it had lain dormant. Throughout The Kingmaker, we witness the former first lady - now resembling an extravagantly pompadoured cross between Barbara Cartland and Kim Jong-il - playing up or putting on a show for the camera, blithely tossing banknotes to passers-by as her car idles at traffic lights, and leading Greenfield on a tour of a garden set up with framed photos of her many meetings with world leaders. (The stage management is rather undercut when Marcos stumbles into a table, smashing a couple of photos to the ground.)
Greenfield quickly grasps that her best bet is to allow her subject all the rope she might need to hang herself with, holding back from any direct intervention or interrogation, and sensing the tactic will in itself yield telling and revealing footage. For some while, it proves to be the correct tactic: a gap is opened up between the image the film's subject wants to present (that of the mother of the modern Philippines, who wants nothing more for her "children" - the Filipino people - than to transform what she perceives as a national hell into a paradise for all; once again, you note how capitalism requires its subjects to adopt the position and thinking patterns of credulous infants) and the reality the camera is recording. Yet this is one of those documentaries that visibly had to shapeshift alongside its subject, as a woman who first presents as a pitiful, past-it figure extended her tentacles beyond the reach of Greenfield's camera and began to reassert some malign influence over the wider world. The result is a film of particular relevance to Western audiences, not least for raising the following two questions. How long do we let our blowhards spout, in the hope they will eventually blow themselves out? And what happens when all this hot air begins to cost lives?
Greenfield lets Marcos run on, then yanks us all back down to earth with an alternative perspective. She hears out Marcos's gabbled account of buying up animals to stick on an island that served as the first family's private petting zoo - how whimsical, Imelda wants us to think, how wonderfully capricious - then speaks with representatives of the 250 families evicted to make way for this doomed venture, and cuts in footage of the poor, transplanted giraffes involved, their growth stunted, their insides riddled with rot. Marcos boasts of her generosity towards opposition leader Ninoy Aquino; archive footage shows Aquino's corpse laid out on the tarmac at what was Manila Airport. She talks proudly of the positive changes wrought by the imposition of martial law under her husband's regime; Greenfield talks to those who were raped or otherwise assaulted. It is a world within a world, ringfenced from the likes of you, me and reality, yet propped up by the people - literally so in the case of the swarming entourage Marcos waves in to fix her make up, chaperone her between suites or hold up newspaper headlines proclaiming her husband's innocence. Some of the most pointed testimony Greenfield gathers comes from old (Republican-leaning?) American pals of the Marcoses, who retained a foot in both camps, but who had somewhere else to go and could therefore maintain some distance: what they saw was how absurd the couple's lives were, how they operated entirely by rules of their own making.
Easy to understand why Greenfield should have brought this film to us now, with our own leaders drifting away from realpolitik and ever further into cloud cuckoo land. We get a photo of Imelda with Trump, possibly discussing how to consolidate ill-gotten gains with real estate deals; Marcos's use of the loaded term "sovereignty" to justify the use of martial law may strike a disquieting chord with UK viewers; and one of her maxims - "perception is real, and the truth is not" - could have been torn from the Bannon/Cummings playbook. (Greenfield yokes that more specifically to the election of Duterte, a self-described strongman who vowed to fix his country's problems overnight and passed himself off as a man of the people, no matter that his father occupied a prime seat in the Marcos cabinet.) What's vaguely reassuring is that The Kingmaker suggests all empires, especially those riddled with corruption, must eventually fall, because it's hard to keep grasping allies in place and the mob on side for long: at some point, the troubled history of the Philippines tells us, your co-conspirators will want more, while your aggrieved and oppressed citizens will want to trade in those empty promises for bread and a living wage. What's terrifying about the film is the suggestion our would-be overlords are getting ever wilier about extending their time on camera, and thus keeping their rotten ideas in play.
What's interesting is how Greenfield forces us, scene by scene, to navigate our feelings towards Imelda and the comparatively open and unbriefed Bongbong, who may himself have been ringfenced from at least some of the privilege his parents enjoyed. (Challenged to repay what his folks stole from the Filipino people during a televised vice-presidential debate, he shrugs "I cannot give what I do not have", and your mind reels back to those shots of Imelda handing out banknotes like candy at that stoplight.) Do we feel something when we see Imelda Marcos being pushed around in a wheelchair, or when her memory seems to fail her, or when she betrays some delusion about her place in history? Yes, because we have empathy; unlike some of those currently occupying high office, we're not complete sociopaths. Yet the movie leaves us in little doubt that these most performative signs of weakness - as with any suggestion that Imelda might be considered a victim - may in themselves be a show, a form of spin, and that they are as nothing when one sets them against the lifetime of pain and suffering endured by the Filipino poor. Greenfield induces that wary, guarded empathy one might feel in close proximity to a wounded lion or wolf, creatures that, though laid low, may just rally long enough overnight to make a second lunge for your throat or chest. Even if they can't eat you, their more vigorous offspring still might.
The Kingmaker is now playing in selected cinemas.