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The Kingmaker is a movie about Imelda Marcos that snubs earlier documentary

My thrill in seeing Ramona Diaz’s film Imelda (2004), streaming for free online this month, was dampened by the hype surrounding a new film about the former first lady of the Philippines.

I was puzzled to read about The Kingmaker (2019) by Lauren Greenfield, touted for its “unprecedented access” (Showtime) by a filmmaker “perfect” for the subject (Variety). Frankly shocked at the blatant erasure of Ramona Diaz’s pioneering access to Imelda Marcos, watching Greenfield’s film becomes a reckoning. When white people themselves are sick of watching white movies in this era of #OscarsSoWhite, and the demand for diversity so urgent and universal in the industry, it’s not a matter of whether they should make films about brown people, but how. The Kingmaker is a wish that Ramona Diaz’s film does not exist, effacing a brown woman’s excellence in an industry known for its inequity.

How should white people make movies that represent others, and how does Greenfield fall short? In one of the earliest scenes in The Kingmaker, we see the preserved body of Ferdinand Marcos shot from different angles in his mausoleum. Ramona Diaz was the first one to shoot in this hard-won location. It is the very site where Imelda first says that “here lies love” will be etched into her gravestone. As she leans over her dead husband, saying he is Filipino and she is love, we witness a moment that encapsulates Diaz’s greatness as a filmmaker: her ability to gain access to such previously unseen sites and compel the articulation of a gargantuan vision of self. Diaz had to shoot here hurriedly, but since then, the mausoleum has opened to other filmmakers. Greenfield shoots there with several set-ups, moving lights and camera as if possessing all the time in the world—clearly thanks to the door Diaz opened. The claim, then, to “unprecedented access” is just one erasure of Diaz’s career-launching film; the many repeated moments and motifs in The Kingmaker are another.

Movies, like books, meet a need, a hunger, and a reason for why they should be made when they are. According to my interview with Ramona Diaz in 2017, she got access to Imelda because she desired attention she no longer enjoyed as first lady. The film reveals how she continued to seek power for herself and her family. In The Kingmaker, Imelda reprises herself from 2004, saying she is “missing the clout of being first lady” and wants “to vindicate the family honor.” Greenfield’s film then ends up simply reenacting much of Diaz’s Imelda as if it had not already been made, and to acclaim.

What the repetition actually shows is how the filmmakers achieve different degrees of intimacy with Imelda herself: Diaz reaches closeness to Imelda while Greenfield’s access reveals a kind of distance from her subject. For example, Diaz reveals how Imelda speaks like a broken record to suppress reality. She captures how “beauty,” Imelda’s most oft-repeated word, is part of a strange cosmology in her mind that involves the peace sign and Pac-Man. Greenfield’s film incorporates that repeated use of “beauty” but stays peripheral to the depths of her subject’s delusional worldview.

In another example, The Kingmaker repeats the story of how Imelda brought diamonds and diapers into exile, but presents it as a life-saving decision to generate the millions they would need to pay their lawyers, thereby recasting it as a lucky impulse when they fled. In Diaz’s film, however, we watch Imelda casually disclose how she was able to escape with her 11-carat and 70-carat diamonds. Diaz’s film thus reveals a different perspective: the theft that must have occurred for the first lady of a poor country, whose husband was paid an annual salary of $13,000, to have such valuable rocks in the first place.

The Kingmaker is strongest when it repeats the material from Imelda; otherwise, it struggles to find focus. One new story this film does tell is how the Marcos’s displaced 250 families from an island to make way for African zebras and giraffes to be transported there, though that story alone is not enough to make the film unique. As an artist celebrated for her career focus on wealth, Greenfield could use that status and her platform to confront and account for globalization and colonialism, even implicating Americans in propping up the dictatorship. Pretending that Imelda does not exist in re-enacting it, however, is a travesty that reveals the onus should be on white filmmakers to help open doors for brown filmmakers, rather than further obscure them.

The Kingmaker’s derivativeness defies its status as “unprecedented.” Does that description circulate because it is a white person who made the movie? Is the author “perfect” because she has made similar films about the decadence of delusional rich white people before? Critics—who themselves are predominantly straight, white, able-bodied men—also play an important role in this discourse, in which the perspectives of people of color and women are less privileged, whether in giving credit to filmmakers or considering how images hurt. But it does not have to be this way.

To return to my original question: how can films by white people about brown people, in this age of #OscarsSoWhite, provide an example of ethical filmmaking that does not harm, as the erasure and recolonizing of Diaz’s film and subject does in this case? In other words, how can they avoid what celebrated Filipina American writer Gina Apostol has called Greenfield’s “Columbusing” of Diaz? An ethical filmmaking is appropriately citational; it gives credit and mentions others to amplify those other voices, especially when white filmmakers are telling brown people’s stories. This is what an ethical act of representing others entails: considering unequal access to representation and acknowledging the important, though less visible, work that has paved the way. And critics, too, must historicize films they celebrate so as not to erase brown women’s excellence in the films they’ve already made.

Photo: President and Mrs. Lyndon Johnson and President and Mrs. Ferdinand Marcos at the White House via US Library of Congress

Recent Comments

  1. David Monico

    Diaz’s film gives a chance for the viewer to make his or her opinion. It is up to you if you think Imelda is Evil or not. You are right! Diaz made sure she knows her subject very well. It is not a film to judge her subject. This other film is a trying hard bad copy cat. And judgemental from a white filmmakers point of view. She made this film to make money for herself…in as much as her subject is accused of the same thing. It is almost like a propaganda film to attack a 90 year old woman who ‘s story has been told and retold…and in her trailer where she films Imelda saying” perception is real…and the truth is not” sounded like that s her motto in life…where as what she meant was…the perception of her and her family that the media and their haters created of them was real for those who believe what they want to believe rather than to know the real truth….so for those who judge you for what is written about you rather than really searching for the truth. Takes truth for granted. As Imelda often says…”a bullet will kill you once…but the media can killl you for all eternity.” But good or bad publicity is publicity. I guess Imelda will always be in the limelight…and film makers still capitalize in making money out of her misunderstood image… Tho for me this is not filmmaking “ART”…it is a political propaganda…bullying a 90 year old woman who already was disgraced, humiliated, and punished to this day for crimes that has not be proven in Almost 30 years of non stop court cases both in the USA and in the Philippines… were they found nothing! No Skeletons! Only Shoes! A woman who is still moving on with whatever time is remaining in her life…At 90 Imelda out lasted everyone…now that s the truth….

  2. Nina Seavey

    I think this is a gross overstatement and a total misattribution of motive that on the part of the producers of Lauren Greenfield’s work. Films are remade all the time. Each one of them boasts “unparalleled, exclusive access.” That’s spin. It’s PR pure and simple. My films have been remade by others. I don’t like it but there’s nothing I can do about it. I hold on to my content and make it relevant as long as I can. But most of all, it has nothing to do with my color or my gender or anything about me at all if someone tackles the same subject matter as me. It has to do with the fact that the number of new ideas out there is limited and that, especially in the case of a marquis name like Imelda Marcos, that someone would make another film about her is entirely predictable. Diaz had a good run with her film for a long time. That Greenfield would approach the same subject matter has nothing to do with Diaz’s sociological or biological profile, it had to do with the fact that she had a good idea and eventually someone came along and did the same thing. Isn’t imitation the best form of flattery?

  3. Aaron

    This entire article could best be described as “play the race card, quickly!”I wonder, have you even seen the film, because the information you have gleamed could just as well be had from watching the trailers.

  4. Don

    Nina Seavey – you miss the point completely. Shimizu here is talking about attribution and erasure of voice and claiming work as pioneering when it is not. Not about whether Greenfield should or should not have remade this film, but HOW. How does a white privileged filmmaker ethically tell stories of brown people? That is what is being discussed here. And the claims are unprecedented access – not unparalleled nor exclusive. There is a difference. You may call it spin but Shimizu prefers to call it what it is: a lie. It is not true. To call lying spin is in itself spin.

  5. Aaron

    I’m going to reply directly to Nina Seavey’s comment:

    In this context, no it is not.

    Imitation will not render equity to POC filmmakers who have their stories re-packaged by non-POC filmmakers.

    I emphasize “their stories” because Ramona Diaz is a Filipina-American telling a story that is deeply rooted in the Filipino/Filipino-American experience today.

    Lauren Greenfield is presenting a Western (read: outsider) perspective on the matter and that distinction is important, especially in the marketing.

    Novelty of ideas in documentary filmmaking is not a compelling motive to Columbus somebody else’s work, of which marketing and PR spin is plenty capable of doing.

    The whole point of the article was to make an argument towards creating a more ethical documentary filmmaking environment by citing and crediting existing works that newer films find footing on.

    And to Aaron:

    I don’t think you read this article for more than a few seconds, so I wouldn’t be so quick to toss such meaningless drivel into the mix.

    Try watching the trailers and reading the article again, maybe you’ll be able to say something useful next time.

  6. Nina Seavey

    Don – If you draw your logic out to its logical conclusion, we could never make films about anyone but our own selves! That’s ridiculous. Of course its ethical for anyone to tell any story that he or she wants to. There is no material that “off limits” because of race, creed, color, gender, or any other category or qualification. I want to be able to tell stories about men, about people and peoples long dead and gone, about cultures whose world I enter and explore. My color and gender and ethnicity inform my thinking but they do not disqualify me from the inquiry. To suggest otherwise is intellectually bereft.

    And Don – Again, respectfully disagreed. A remake by anyone does not “silence” the previous storyteller. It’s a story, told by a different filmmaker at a different point in time, told by someone with her own point of view. That seems to me to be what filmmaking is all about – a multiplicity of voices each sharing his or her own perspective. One does not obviate another. Ramona’s film was excellent, but it was made almost 15 years ago. Why not have a fresh gaze on the material??? Imelda Marcos is an endlessly interesting character and there are more ways to explore her than just one.

  7. […] expanded her insight in a blog published by the Oxford University Press, where she noted how “The Kingmaker” dismissed […]

  8. Don Wisk

    Nina Seavey – it is totally fascinating how you refuse to get the point of this blog. Again, it is the claim that this new film is pioneering work by claiming unprecedented access when it is not. And NOT whether she should or should not make this film. This logical conclusion you speak of is not logical at all. Read the blog again.

    And I wonder if you’ve seen the new film. It rehashes most of Diaz’s 2004 film, down to the opening shot of Imelda in her van. The claim of this new film is that it reveals that the Marcoses are back in power. However, Diaz’s film ends with the children winning political office. And the song over the closing credits – “I Just Can’t Get Enough” – in Diaz’s film says it all. They have been back in power for years. I wonder what you mean by fresh take? Again, before you get all defensive about who can make what, this is a critique of the film itself and not a statement that Greenfield should not have made this film.

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