The truly remarkable Imelda Marcos did history a great service by agreeing to sit down for an interview with documentarian Ramona S. Diaz for her searing documentary, Imelda. Though Marcos initially agreed to only 15 minutes, the talk ended up lasting five incredible hours, and the result, intercut with old news footage and comments from both her cronies and her opposition, is an unforgettable portrait of complete self-delusion.
Those who remember Imelda only as the dictator's wife who squandered her country's wealth on shoes are missing one hell of a story. It all begins in the southern Philippines, where Imelda was plucked from obscurity by appearing in a number of beauty pageants that led up to a second-place finish in a national contest. True to form, she bitched until the judges changed the results and declared her the winner. Imelda recounts this story with great amusement, and it's easy to see how her undeniable charm could work magic on everyone from Henry Kissinger to Saddam Hussein.
After latching on to the dynamic young Ferdinand Marcos, Imelda enjoyed a quick rise to the top of the Philippines' famously crazy political system. As first lady (and also governor of metro Manila) she saw her role as being the shining star to which the downtrodden masses could look for inspiration. She carefully explains that she spent twice as much time primping to meet the peasants as she did to meet heads of states. They expected her to wear only the best clothes... and the best shoes, she says.
A decade-long spending spree on cultural centers left greater Manila dotted with spectacular but mostly unused edifices in which Imelda hoped to stage events that would put Manila on a cultural par with New York and Paris, this while the masses lived in squalor. Scenes of Imelda traveling the world attending glittering parties and meeting world leaders are fun to watch as she reminisces about the glamour of it all. How great to see George Hamilton serenading her on her yacht.
Given the limited amount of time Diaz was granted, she chose not to debate any of Imelda's absurd assertions with her, such as the one where she says her husband never held political prisoners (in reality, he held 70,000). Instead, Diaz lets historians and political dissenters, some of whom were torture victims, bounce their realities off Imelda's. It's a stunningly stark contrast. We also meet Imelda's dressmaker, who today has to balance the justifiable pride he has in his gorgeous creations with the guilt he feels about his somewhat ill-gotten gains. In an amusing aside, one of Imelda's female detractors even defends the shoes, saying that anyone who knows Filipinas knows they just love to shop for shoes. She herself has 400 pairs, she admits.
The documentary reaches its pinnacle of absurdity when Imelda decides to take a few minutes to explain her personal system of cosmological philosophy, a truly deranged tangle of numbers, shapes, and diagrams which she carefully sketches out on a big white pad. It's a journey into the mind of a well-coiffed madwoman who, like so many world leaders, has spent too much time surrounded by sycophants who tell her nothing but how great and brilliant she is. Even today she lives in a certain amount of grandeur, funded no doubt from one of the Swiss bank accounts that authorities couldn't uncover.
Imelda studied the Eva Peron playbook carefully, and you have to grudgingly give the old broad a certain amount of credit for her self-invention and the rather long and incredible ride she's enjoyed. Even in disgrace, and even with Diaz's accusing camera in her face as she strikes a devoted pose over her husband's wax-covered corpse, she still seems to be enjoying it immensely.
Aka Imelda - Power, Myth, Illusion.