MANILA -- In 1976, Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, the husband-and-wife duo who ruled the Philippines under martial law, evicted 254 families from an island named Calauit and replaced them with African animals shipped from Kenya in latter-day echoes of Noah's Ark.
Everyone knows about the profligate Imelda Marcos' 3,000 pairs of shoes; far fewer are aware of the grotesque excesses of her private safari park. Almost 40 years later I wrote an article about the island, where neglect and inbreeding have created a cross between "Jurassic Park" and the Serengeti.
That article was read by Lauren Greenfield, an award-winning Los Angeles-based documentary film director. Fresh from the success of "The Queen of Versailles" (2012) and with "Generation Wealth" (2018) already in train, Greenfield decided that the former first lady of the Philippines would be the perfect subject for her next big film.
When Greenfield invited me to join her team, we envisaged using the tragicomic tale of the safari park as a lead-in to a largely historical documentary on Imelda Marcos, the "Steel Butterfly," and her addiction to excess. Instead we found ourselves spending the next five years filming a much bigger and far more topical story.
During numerous interviews with Marcos, her son Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr., and other relatives, it became clear that the former co-dictator was anything but a historical has-been. She and her family, with the help of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and a war chest of ill-gotten gains, were intent on restoring the dynasty to power. A film with the original working title "Fantasy Island" instead became "The Kingmaker."
The Marcoses ruled for 21 years from 1965 and embezzled as much as $10 billion, according to a joint report by the United Nations and the World Bank, before being ousted by a "People Power" popular uprising in February 1986. During their reign, some 70,000 opponents were jailed, 35,000 tortured and 3,200 killed, according to U.S. historian and Philippine specialist Alfred W. McCoy -- mostly during a nine-year period of martial law. In 1983, opposition leader Benigno "Ninoy" Aquino was gunned down on the tarmac of the Manila airport that now bears his name.
Once, we asked Imelda Marcos whether she ordered the killing of Aquino. Her reply: "Why would I do that? I had nothing against him, except that he talked too much anyway."
The former first lady, now an improbably resilient 90 years old, and free on bail despite facing historical corruption charges, says "destiny" will ensure that the family one day returns to Malacanang Palace, home to Philippine presidents. We followed Bongbong during the 2016 elections as the family staged a lavishly funded campaign to have him elected vice president. He refused to accept his 260,000-vote defeat, lodging a protest with the Supreme Court in the hope of getting it overturned. The case is ongoing.
That election also saw the rise of Duterte to the presidency. Shortly after his election, Duterte acknowledged that the Marcos family had helped to finance his campaign. He gave permission for Ferdinand Marcos' body -- long displayed in a glass case in a mausoleum in the garden of the Marcos family's mansion in their Ilocos Norte provincial fiefdom -- to be reburied in the Libingan ng mga Bayani, or Heroes' Cemetery, in Manila.
Duterte has also stated that he wants Bongbong to succeed him rather than Vice President Leni Robredo, a former human rights lawyer and an outspoken critic of the president's war on drugs, which has claimed 27,000 lives, according to Human Rights Watch. While making "The Kingmaker," we went out at night to film the bodies left by Duterte's death squads and interviewed the widows and orphans.
Showings at North American and European film festivals since its launch in Venice in August have prompted enthusiastic reviews. Based on 58 major reviews, the aggregator Rotten Tomatoes has given it a 97% positive rating. "It's an ugly story shrewdly told, with a sense of humor and also a [deep] feeling for history," The New York Times said.
In the Philippines, where "Kingmaker" only screened for the first time in January, the reaction has been overwhelming, generating so much demand that special screenings are being held on Feb. 19 and again on Feb. 25, coinciding with the anniversary of the 1986 People Power uprising against the Marcoses. To avoid official interference, the distributors had struck a deal to screen it seven times at two venues not subject to the official censors -- the Cultural Center of the Philippines and the University of the Philippines.
No members of the Marcos or Duterte families attended the first screenings, held on Jan. 29. But guests included several leading opposition politicians and former victims of the regime, including activists Etta Rosales and May Rodriguez, who were sexually assaulted and tortured.
"Never again to martial law," audiences chanted as the credits rolled. "I was moved to tears," said Risa Hontiveros, one of three opposition senators currently serving in the 24-strong senate (a fourth is in jail).
Former Senate President Franklin Drilon, now minority floor leader, said the film is a history lesson that every Filipino should see. "Filipinos who are 45 years of age and younger do not have a clear concept of what happened during those years -- and that is 60% of our population," he said.
The Cultural Center, a vast waterfront complex with a gruesome history, was an ironic location for screenings. At the height of her powers in 1981, Imelda Marcos ordered the rushed construction there of a grandiose Manila Film Center -- modeled on the Parthenon -- to enable the Philippines to stage the 1982 Manila International Film Festival, which she hoped would rival France's Cannes Film Festival, founded in 1946.
At around 3 a.m. one November morning, with construction underway around the clock, part of the building collapsed. No rescuers were allowed into the site for nine hours, but the number of deaths is estimated at up to 169. Some dead workers were said to be buried under quick-drying cement after the Steel Butterfly ordered construction to continue.
The 1982 film festival went ahead as planned, with appearances by a smattering of international stars, including Jeremy Irons and George Hamilton, a first lady favorite. But Manila never did become another Cannes, despite her attempts to replicate the French Riviera by dumping tons of sand on the muddy foreshore of Manila Bay.
This January, "The Kingmaker" was screened in another theater inside the sprawling Cultural Center complex. But the center's directors appear to have an ambivalent relationship with the woman who was its founding chairperson.
Chris Millado, the CCP's vice president and artistic director, who made the call to show the film, confessed between screenings that some board members were angry they had not been consulted. But in a subsequent speech to cinemagoers, Millado was unrepentant, noting that the "The Kingmaker" was a reminder "we should never forget."
Will "The Kingmaker" beat the censors and be screened across the country? And will the Philippines keep its fragile democracy? An ominous clue came in January, when Bongbong Marcos announced he would run for national office in 2022. He did not say which office he had in mind, but former Senate President Drilon thinks he knows. "There is no doubt in my mind that Bongbong is going to run for president," he said.
William Mellor was consulting producer of "The Kingmaker."