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Miss Manila

New Documentary Takes a Walk in Imelda Marcos' Shoes

Not Just Another Pretty Face: Imelda director Ramona S. Diaz hopes that American audiences will be willing to look beyond the clichés and accept Imelda Marcos as more than a one-dimensional caricature.


Director:Ramona S. Diaz
Screen Writer:Ramona S. Diaz
Release Date:2004

By Eric Allen Hatch | Posted 5/5/2004

For many Americans old enough to remember the mid-1980s, the name Imelda Marcos conjures hazy memories of the roughly 3,000 pairs of shoes the former first lady of the Philippines was said to have owned--and that's it. Intriguingly, Imelda, the new documentary by Baltimorean Ramona S. Diaz, manages to say very little about those shoes while still revealing quite a lot about the woman who wore them (or at least some of them).

Diaz grew up in Manila during the difficult period when President Ferdinand Marcos ruled under martial law. (Marcos was deposed in 1986; the Marcoses fled the Philippines for a Hawaiian exile, and the former president died in 1989.) Still, she acknowledges that despite the corruption and repression of their 20-year autocratic reign, the first couple emanated a certain mystique, a mystique that caused the press to dub Imelda the "Asian Jackie Kennedy." Since Diaz's family strongly and openly opposed the Marcos administration, the filmmaker was quite surprised when, in 1993, Imelda Marcos agreed to be interviewed for her Stanford University thesis film, Spirits Rising.

"I had really lobbied for this interview, [but] it was a student film, so the chances were really miniscule that she'd give me this interview," the petite, gregarious Diaz recalls during an interview at a café not far from her Mount Washington home. "But it happened. The film was about the '86 revolution that ousted them. And when I got there I was told, 'You have 15 minutes, and you can't talk about 1986.' So I said, 'OK, but that's what my film's about. . . .'"

Still, Diaz decided to forge ahead with the interview and see what happened. "It ended up we were with her for four hours," Diaz recalls with a laugh. "Obviously, the woman wanted to talk! And she brought up the revolution."

Given Marcos' willingness to talk freely on camera, Diaz eventually conceived Imelda, a film that she hopes audiences will read not as a political history of the Philippines, but as character study of a historically significant, extremely quirky woman. She again contacted Marcos, this time asking her to allow a crew to spend a month following her every move. Once again, the now 74-year-old former first lady said yes.

"I think she said yes because she had nothing better to do," Diaz muses. "She had been in exile in Hawaii, and had come back to the Philippines. She was no longer the center of things. I think she missed the attention. Now she was in high demand again--the crew followed her everywhere she went."

But Diaz also sees in Marcos' willingness to appear in this documentary--which also interviews Marcos family members and staunch supporters as well as opposition members and international observers--two key personality traits that recur endlessly in Imelda: unshakable self-confidence and a staggering immunity to criticism. "She knew what my politics were," Diaz says. "Mrs. Marcos is one of those people who believes so strongly in her powers of persuasion that she thinks at the end of the day I'll join her side. But if I don't, she doesn't really care. There's nothing that this woman has not heard before about her life. She's unafraid."

This indomitable will forms the backbone of the life story that unfolds in Imelda. Born Imelda Romualdez in 1929, the woman who became Imelda Marcos had a storied young adulthood, singing for Gen. Douglas MacArthur after U.S. troops wrested the Philippines from Japanese control in 1945, and participating in beauty pageants in the 1950s before marrying rising political star Ferdinand Marcos in 1954. By the time her husband was elected president in 1965, Mrs. Marcos was perhaps the greater celebrity; many credit his election to her aggressive campaigning, which would usually feature her bursting into impassioned song.

Imelda stresses time and time again that Mrs. Marcos was never content to be just a politician's wife. "I think she's misunderstood because most people dismiss her as a flighty woman who just shopped," Diaz says. "But she was very powerful in her own right, and sly as a fox. She wasn't just the wife of a dictator. No, no, no. This woman had power."

Indeed, a few years after her husband declared martial law in 1972, he appointed his wife as governor of Metro Manila. Far from a figurehead, Mrs. Marcos pursued an aggressive series of programs--many of them ill-conceived and self-serving, but some, like her willingness to face off against the Roman Catholic Church and promote condom use as a means of population control, bold and effective.

Diaz's film often lets Marcos spin her own version of the truth, but also occasionally seems to say "enough is enough." One such moment comes when Marcos recalls the press criticizing her for the amount of wealth she carted with her from Manila to her exile in Hawaii. Imelda claims that she took but a single modest piece of jewelry. Not so, attests recently declassified footage from a Hawaiian customs video camera that shows inspectors unpacking box after box of opulent jewels.

Still, Diaz doesn't reject the notion that the things Marcos says might be true--to Marcos. "Some things she's said for so long that in the beginning she may have been lying to herself, but after you say something for so long then it becomes your truth," the filmmaker says. "I think in her head she really thinks, 'Yeah, we declared martial law to protect democracy.' I've come to believe that she believes it--simply because she said it."

Imelda covers a lot of ground and uncovers corners of the mind of a rich and powerful woman that at times strangely recall another documentary, The Eyes of Tammy Faye, a 2000 film about former televangelist Tammy Faye Bakker. Both documentaries take a much-ridiculed woman and show that, without discounting their formidable negative legacies, each has her charming side--as well as a few laudable accomplishments under her belt.

Both films provide ample comic relief as well. In Imelda, this comes by the truckload whenever Marcos discusses her self-designed cosmology, a New Age-y, personal self-help credo that involves a complex series of inscrutable pictographs. Marcos has self-published a book on the subject--a book she read to Diaz in its entirety one eye-glazing evening.

Diaz's film has secured theatrical distribution for both the United States and the Philippines--which, she says, will make it the first documentary to play theatrically in her home country. Diaz expects it will stir up great controversy there. "I believe that the people who are anti-Imelda will see this film and say, 'You were too soft on her. You didn't hit her enough,'" Diaz says. "And the people who love her will say, 'God, this is such a hit piece.'"

As for Marcos herself, the former first lady hasn't seen the film yet and, Diaz says, seemed disinclined to do so--until, that is, she heard that the movie that bears her name won the 2004 Sundance Film Festival Excellence in Cinematography Award. Then, Diaz recalls, "she called and said, 'It makes perfect sense that your film won the cinematography award, because it's about beauty.'"

Finally, well, what about those shoes?

For those who can't let it go, Diaz's film gives them their fix, taking viewers inside a Manila museum devoted to Marcos' shoes--a museum, the documentarian notes, that displays its wares with no trace of criticism or irony. Diaz finds this shoe fixation increasingly understandable--as she's toured with her film, she's fielded endless questions about footwear from press and audience members alike.

"There's so many closet shoe lovers out there!" Diaz concludes with a good-natured laugh. "Now I know why she hit such a nerve."

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