By C.J. Hirschfield
Some of the best documentaries have had to shift direction after filming began, based on changed circumstances that must be included. Life happens, and able filmmakers pivot, and re-think the narrative to match a new—and often more compelling–reality.
Such was the case with award-winning filmmaker Lauren Greenfield as she was creating THE KINGMAKER, now in theaters. Inspired by an article she read in Bloomberg by William Mellor about a nearly-abandoned exotic animal zoo in the Philippines that forced the relocation of poor residents. She set out to make a film that would use the zoo as a powerful symbol of the devastating consequences of the Marcos regime, and its wild extravagances.
Giraffes at the 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.
This sort of extravagance is not unknown to Greenfield; her excellent QUEEN OF VERSAILLES documentary about one of the largest and most expensive houses in the U.S. won the U.S. Directing Award at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.
She initially planned to focus on the then-85 year-old Imelda Marcos, who is an infinitely interesting and complex subject. When she started work on the film in 2014, she says she could not have imagined the election of strongman Rodrigo Duterte and the killings that followed, or the lengths to which Imelda would go to stage a political comeback for her family.
“I didn’t expect that the film would be relevant for today,” she says, adding that the “really scary stuff” didn’t happen until the 2016 elections. “The country felt democratic at that (earlier) point.”
Former first lady Imelda Marcos deplanes upon arrival to Ferdinand Marcos’ home province of Ilocos Norte, Manila, 2014.
Imelda was very open in the interviews; Greenfield thinks that she missed being the media darling, and was interested in having a dialogue with international media. “She’s not just vain and pretty, but highly strategic,” says Greenfield. In the film, Marcos lies with abandon, boasts about singlehandedly bringing an end to the Cold War, and in one of my favorite Freudian slips of all time, tearfully states that “when you lose your money—I mean mother—you lose everything.”
And yes, there’s the money. Between one and five billion dollars are believed to have been successfully hid by the Marcos family from the government. And that money is now being doled out to family members running for office, and to the cause of strongman president Duterte.
Greenfield says she was shocked when she covered the 2016 Philippine election. There were no international journalists there until the last night, and the film conveys a very real sense of dread on the part of poor people who wouldn’t show their faces for fear of retaliation if they spoke out against Duterte.
An election banner in support of former first lady and Congresswoman Imelda Marcos, her son Vice-Presidential candidate Senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr., her daughter Ilocos Norte Governor Imee Marcos, and grandson Matthew Marcos Manotoc, Ilocos Norte, Philippines, 2016.
The film does an excellent job of teaching us about the rocky political history of the Philippines, and there are many parallels between their 2016 election and ours. The election of a bombastic strongman president, the use of fake news outlets, the vilification of the media—all are sadly familiar.
Marla Maples, Joey Adams, Donald Trump and Imelda Marcos in 1991. Courtesy of Time & Life Pictures /Getty Images
Greenfield would like viewers of her film to walk away thinking about how fragile democracy is, and how it needs to be safeguarded. “There are lots of lessons there for us,” she says. “Our democratic institutions are under assault.”
And through it all, there’s Imelda—underestimate her at your own risk.
All photos in this interview, unless otherwise noted, are courtesy of © Lauren Greenfield/INSTITUTE
THE KINGMAKER, a Showtime Documentary Films release, opens Friday, December 13 at
Landmark’s Embarcadero Center Cinema, San Francisco
Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas, Berkeley
Landmark’s Albany Twin, Albany
Smith Rafael Film Center, San Rafael
and theaters across the country.
Lauren Greenfield was named by the New York Times as “America’s foremost visual chronicler of the plutocracy.” The Emmy Award–winning filmmaker/photographer has produced groundbreaking work on consumerism, youth culture, and gender for the last 25 years. Her films GENERATION WEALTH, THE QUEEN OF VERSAILLES, and THIN, and photography books Generation Wealth, Fast Forward, and Girl Culture have provoked international dialogue about some of the most important issues of our time. The Queen
of Versailles was the opening night film of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Best Documentary Director Award and was named by Vogue as one of the top documentaries of all time. Her record-breaking, Super Bowl ad #LikeAGirl (250+ million views) earned her 14 Cannes Lions and the Most Awarded Director by Ad Age, making her the first woman to top this list.
GENERATION WEALTH (Amazon Studios) opened the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, screened at Berlinale, and received a Writers Guild nomination. The companion exhibition received The Paris Photography prize, has travelled around the world, and opened at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art (Copenhagen) in Fall 2019. In 2019 she also launched Girl Culture Films, to address the lack of diversity of directors in the advertising industry.
More about Greenfield and her many projects.
To view over 200 photos taken during the making of THE KINGMAKER visit Institute.
Many other projects by Greenfield may be explored including films, photos, monographs and books.
Follow Lauren Greenfield on Twitter
C.J. Hirschfield recently retired after 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry and produced two series, ran San Francisco’s public access channel and has written a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years. She has also written features and reviews for EatDrinkFilms. She holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.
Hirschfield is former president and board member of the California Attractions and Parks Association, and also serves on the boards of Visit Oakland and the Lake Merritt/Uptown Business Improvement District and is on the programming team for the Appreciating Diversity Film series showing free monthly movies in Oakland and Piedmont. C.J. says, “Documentaries make me a better person.”