I met Imelda Marcos in the Philippines in 1993, when I was shooting my first film, Spirits Rising. Mrs. Marcos was one of the many women I interviewed for the film about the People Power Revolution that ended the 20-year regime of the Marcoses and sent them into exile in Hawaii in 1986.
In the Philippines when I was growing up there, Imelda Marcos loomed larger than life. Her every move was chronicled in the government-controlled newspapers. Not a day went by in the 1970s and early 1980s when one didn’t hear what the Philippine first lady was up to. It seemed that life in the Philippines, or at least in the capital Manila, revolved around the Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos and their children. When I left the Philippines to study in the United States in 1981, I hadn’t known any other president aside from Ferdinand Marcos.
When I met Mrs. Marcos, it was surreal. I can almost compare it to meeting a figment of my childhood imagination. Before the interview, I was told that it was to last no more than 15 minutes and I was not to ask her about the events of 1986. Five hours later, we were still at her apartment suite high above Manila and she had told me about “that fateful night in 1986.” I didn’t need to ask her about it, she had volunteered the story. She was charming and humorous on the one hand, self-absorbed and crafty on the other. I was surprised and, in a sense ashamed, at how much I enjoyed her company. It was uncomfortable given all the stories I had heard growing up: the corruption, the human rights abuses, the legacy of national poverty left by the Marcos regime. I wanted to examine this duality of attraction and repulsion further.
Mrs. Marcos thought the idea of making a film about her personal history was, well, fascinating. She agreed to make the film and, to her credit and my immense luck, honored her commitment to participate in the film five years later, after I had finished my first film and raised money for Imelda.
Given the economics of making a film in the Philippines where film laboratory costs are a tenth of stateside prices, I decided to shoot in 16-millimeter film. I wanted to show the beauty of the country — the lush tropical landscapes, the fascinating faces, the color of the sunsets — and only film could capture that. I had also discovered a treasure trove of 16-millimeter archival footage of the Marcos years and wanted to match the quality with original, present day film footage of the former first lady. Therefore, armed with a large (as far as documentaries go) film crew of seven (myself as producer/director, a cinematographer, a sound recordist, an assistant camera, an associate producer and a couple of production assistants), I followed Mrs. Marcos for a month all over the Philippines, from the northern reaches of the Ilocos all the way down the southern tip of Leyte. At one point, she even invited the crew to stay at her seaside home in Olot.
It was one of the most difficult shoots I’d ever been on. First, there was the weather. There are two seasons in the Philippines: wet and arid. We filmed in May when the merciless heat (100°F in the shade) was about to give way to unrelenting typhoons when warm winds coupled with rain can go on for weeks at a time. Second, Mrs. Marcos is inexhaustible. She can go for hours and hours, talking and driving all over the city and flying all over the country, never breaking a sweat. There were days when it seemed like we filmed 24/7.
I didn’t know from day to day what we were going to be filming or if we were going to be filming. Every day we would show up at her apartment and pray for the best. Sometimes she was there ready to shoot, and sometimes she was literally hundreds of miles away. Like most people who have been in power for a long time, Mrs. Marcos is spontaneous because the system she has built around herself allows her to be.
My associate producer caught on and decided to book us a flight every day to the two cities Mrs. Marcos frequented, just in case we had to fly at a moment’s notice. It was stressful. I had to let go of pages of specific shots and topics that I wanted to cover and live in the moment, just like Mrs. Marcos. It was Zen filmmaking at its best — a method I’ve sworn to adopt for every subsequent production because in the end, it worked. I was able to film compelling scenes, some I couldn’t have planned nor imagined.
On days when we would be filming Mrs. Marcos and she was not distracted by other commitments, I found her to be highly “directable.” Like most people in her position, she is media savvy so she understood when to stop for a plane overhead, stand in certain places for better light, and to not look at the camera. And, as I suspected, she knew what her best side was. She also knew the value of visual impact. So although I had to lobby hard to get her to agree to conduct an interview inside the mausoleum where her late husband lays entombed Stalin-like, I believe she understood intuitively that it would be a striking scene.
After interviewing dozens of supporters and detractors of the former first lady, I have found that Imelda seems to be a kind of litmus test for how Filipinos think of ourselves and our relationship to the “masses” — how can we love the people if they love her? How do we resist her imagery and what she stands for and how she defines Filipino pride without distancing ourselves from everything Filipino? I am not sure that this film gives us definitive answers to these questions. My one hope is that it poses the right questions.
— Ramona Diaz
Ramona S. Diaz, Producer
Ramona Diaz is an Asian American filmmaker best known for her compelling character-driven documentaries that have demonstrated her ability to gain intimate access to the people she films, resulting in keenly observed moments and nuanced narratives. Ramona’s credits include Spirits Rising (Student Academy Award, Ida Lupino DGA Award, Golden Gate Award from the SFIFF, IDA Certificate of Merit); Imelda (Excellence in Cinematography Award, 2004 Sundance, IDA ABCNews Videosource Award, Independent Lens in 2005); The Learning (IDA Humanitas Award nomination, POV in 2011); Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey (2012 Tribeca Film Fest, closing night of the San Francisco International FF, opening night of 2012 Silverdocs (now AFIDocs); aired on Independent Lens in 2014). Ramona has received funding from ITVS, CAAM, MacArthur Foundation, Ford Foundation, Sundance, Tribeca, Catapult Film Fund, and Chicken & Egg. Ramona was awarded a Fellowship by the Bogliasco Foundation in the autumn of 2015 where she was in residence at the Bogliasco Study Center in Italy, and she received a fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation for film and video. She is a graduate of Emerson College and holds an MA in Communication from Stanford University.