Photo Essay

The kingmaker’s warning: the return of the Marcos family

When Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos and his acquisitive wife, Imelda, were overthrown in 1986 by a popular uprising, the democratic world hoped to have seen the last of a ruling family that stood accused of murder, torture and embezzlement on a grand scale.

For the next three decades, the Marcoses did indeed appear to have been consigned to history. Ferdinand died in exile in Hawaii in 1989. And the widowed former First Lady Imelda, while still very much alive, was increasingly portrayed – in the Western media at least — as a historical relic, ridiculed for her 3,000 pairs of shoes and bullet-proof bras.

Above: On her 85th birthday, Former First Lady and Congresswoman Imelda Marcos kisses the glass coffin of her husband, Ferdinand Marcos, at the Ilocos Norte mausoleum in his hometown, where his body has been kept since 1993, after subsequent presidents have forbidden the return of his body to Manila. Photo: Lauren Greenfield/INSTITUTE

How times change.  On May 9, as the world continues to focus on Ukraine and Covid, the Philippines, a strategically important Southeast Asian nation of 109 million people, will elect a new President. And impossible as it might seem, opinion polls predict a landslide victory for Ferdinand and Imelda’s son and political heir, Ferdinand Marcos Jr.

Even more alarmingly, Marcos Jr, who goes by the nickname of Bongbong, is campaigning unashamedly on his parents’ track records as conjugal dictators. And to add insult to injury, he is financing his Presidential bid through the bank of mum and dad – a family fortune amassed corruptly during Ferdinand Sr and Imelda’s two decades in power.

Let’s just pause to check the numbers here. During the Marcos years, 75,000 opponents of the regime were jailed, 35,000 tortured and 3,200 killed, according to human rights groups. As for financial crimes, the family embezzled between $5 and $10 billion from their impoverished compatriots, a joint United Nations and World Bank report estimated. That’s the track record Bongbong Marcos, 64, is running on.

So can the latest polls, which give Bongbong 56 per cent of the vote to his nearest rival’s 24 per cent, possibly be right? Unfortunately, I believe they are. And that’s because for the best part of five years I observed the family and its lavishly funded, vote-buying, disinformation-spreading campaign machine at uncomfortably close quarters while working with Emmy award-winning U.S. director Lauren Greenfield on her acclaimed documentary about Imelda Marcos, The Kingmaker.

Greenfield’s film premiered at Venice in 2019, won numerous international awards and achieved a 97 per cent approval rating on the aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes. But perhaps its greatest accomplishment will be to serve as a reminder of the brutal Marcos years and a stark warning of the implications of the family returning to power. 

Penetrating the Philippines market will be key to that. More than 60 per cent of Filipinos weren’t even born when the Marcoses were in power. And while English is widely spoken, it still isn’t the preferred language of many. 

Although The Kingmaker was received rapturously at its Manila premiere and shot to number one on Philippines iTunes and the iWantTFC streaming channel, Greenfield wants to get her story across to a mass audience. Last month, her production company, Evergreen Pictures, released a version dubbed into Tagalog and subtitled in four other local languages, which is now streaming for free in the Philippines via YouTube and Vimeo. As of early April, it had been viewed 10 million times.

Above: Calauit Safari Park, Calauit Island, Philippines, 2014. In 1976, Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos evicted 254 families to make room for their safari park on a Philippine island called Calaluit and replaced them with a menagerie of 104 African animals shipped 6,000 miles from Kenya. After the Marcoses were overthrown, it was all but abandoned, becoming a “Jurassic Park” of inbred giraffes, zebra and other African animals that still survive today. Photo: Lauren Greenfield/INSTITUTE

Above: A closet filled with shoes of former First Lady Imelda Marcos in the Marcos family home they continue to use, despite the fact that it has been sequestered by the government as part of their efforts to recuperate the ill-gotten wealth, San Juan, Manila, 2014. Photo: Lauren Greenfield/INSTITUTE

How Greenfield came to make the film in the first place is a story in itself. In 2013, while working as a correspondent for Bloomberg News, I had made a trip to Calauit, one of the most remote of the 7,100 islands that make up the sprawling Philippines archipelago. Some 37 years earlier, while at the height of their powers, the Marcoses had, at a whim, evicted Calauit’s 1,000 inhabitants and replaced them with a menagerie of African animals shipped from Kenya in a latter-day Noah’s Ark. 

Amazingly, I discovered, descendants of those giraffes, zebra, eland and other exotics were still roaming the island, neglected and inbred. The Marcoses’ forgotten safari park now resembled, I wrote, a cross between the Serengeti and Jurassic Park. As a Marcos extravagance, even the shoes and bulletproof bras paled in comparison.

Over in Los Angeles, Greenfield read my story and decided that the former first lady of the Philippines would be the perfect subject for her next film. She invited me to join her as Consulting Producer. Originally, we envisaged using the tragicomic tale of Calauit as a lead-in to a largely historical documentary on Imelda and her addiction to excess. Instead we found ourselves uncovering a much bigger story.

The second generation Marcoses seldom entertain foreign reporters. But in 2015, Bongbong announced he would be running for vice president (in the Philippines, president and vice president are elected separately) with the impossibly resilient Imelda, then 85, a key figure in his campaign. And because Imelda was the least media averse of the clan, our crew gained intimate access to the Marcos bandwagon as it barnstormed the country.

We traveled with the family to the Marcos feudal fiefdom, the far northern province of Ilocos Norte, where they paid respect to the waxworks-like-embalmed corpse of the dead dictator, displayed then in a glass case in a mausoleum in the garden of the Marcos family mansion. We followed them to Leyte, Imelda’s home province, where her Romualdez relatives are as powerful as the Marcos clan in Ilocos Norte. We interviewed Imelda, Bongbong and numerous other relatives at length. 

Vice-Presidential candidate, Senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr, speaks at a 2016 Philippines election campaign rally, Iloilo, Philippines, 2016. He is the front runner and ends up losing by 263,473 votes and lodges an electoral protest. Photo: Lauren Greenfield/INSTITUTE

But gradually the family found our reporting too intrusive especially when we filmed money being handed like confetti and followed them with our boom microphones to catch every spoken word. Between covering Bongbong’s election rallies we sneaked away to film harrowing testimony from surviving victims and relatives of those murdered.

That included a trip to Malacanang Palace to interview then-President Noynoy Aquino, son of the most famous victim of the Marcos years, opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr., who was gunned down in 1983 on the tarmac of Manila airport after flying home from exile. We then asked Imelda on camera whether, as many believed, she had ordered the Aquino assassination. She replied: “Why would I do that? I had nothing against him except that he talked too much anyway.”

Even when Bongbong narrowly lost that 2016 vice-presidential bid and the planned victory party turned into a wake, we carried on filming, by now convinced that this was not the end of the story. We believed that Bongbong’s family, with the connivance of their ally, newly elected President Rodrigo Duterte – a fellow card-carrying autocrat – had the money and influence to reinstall a Marcos in Malacanang Palace.

Sure enough, shortly after his election, Duterte acknowledged that the Marcos family had helped to finance his campaign. He subsequently gave permission for Ferdinand Marcos Sr’s body to be reburied in the Libingan ng mga Bayani, or Heroes’ Cemetery, in Manila, to the outrage of human rights groups. As we predicted, Bongbong declared his candidacy for the presidency last year. To better his chances, he teamed with vice-presidential aspirant Sara Duterte, daughter of the outgoing president.

To win, the Marcoses won’t need to buy every vote. Their disinformation campaign has already laid the groundwork. Schoolchildren we interviewed in class weren’t just ignorant of what happened during the Marcos years, they were actually misinformed,  believing it to have been a golden age. 

As former President Aquino, who died last year, told us prophetically: “Those who forget the mistakes of the past are condemned to repeat them.” Barring a miracle, Bongbong Marcos will win on May 9. But I doubt audiences who have seen the Kingmaker will be among those voting for him. 

William Mellor is a British-born journalist who has spent more than 30 years covering Asia Pacifc for Bloomberg News, Time and other major media. He first reported from The Philippines during the Marcos regime and was Consulting Producer on “The Kingmaker”

 

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