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Imelda Marcos, now 90, widow of Ferdinand Marcos, the president of the Philippines from 1965 to 1986, stands over the glass case containing her embalmed husband. It is 2014, and she laments that he has not yet been permitted burial in the Philippine Heroes’ Cemetery. One of the more macabre scenes in Lauren Greenfield’s meticulous and disturbing documentary “The Kingmaker,” it is also an ominous metaphor. Is Imelda waiting for Ferdinand to be reburied or to rise from the dead?

Sitting primly on a gilded settee, a Picasso hanging on the wall behind her, and surrounded by costly and tasteless objets d’art, the widow bemoans the injustices suffered by herself and her husband. Simpering with disingenuous self-pity, she relates her version of history, a tragedy in which her only crime was trying too hard to be the loving mother of her people, if not the whole world.

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Greenfield, however, uncovers a different story. Along with extensive archival material, she includes interviews with activists who were imprisoned and tortured during the eight-year period of martial law Marcos declared in 1972 and those who more recently challenged Imelda’s clout and have since fled the country or have been threatened with arrest. She also elicits candid recollections from some of Imelda’s old friends and cronies.c

The Imelda they recall was part of a brutal, corrupt regime which over the course of two decades of murderous despotism robbed the country of billions of dollars. During this time Imelda spent the booty lavishly, not just on her infamous hoard of shoes, but also on jewels, dresses, masterworks by Fragonard and Michelangelo, hundreds of exotic animals for a private zoo, and real estate in the United States worth hundreds of millions.

When the people got restive, Marcos clamped down, arresting, torturing, and killing thousands. In 1983 Benigno Aquino Jr, a popular activist who challenged Marcos’s power, was assassinated. This was too much even for Marcos’s US sponsors, who encouraged him and his family to flee to Hawaii. Aquino’s widow, Corazon, was then elected president.

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Fernando died in 1989, but by 1991 Imelda and her family had returned to the Philippines and many were happy to see them back. Imelda was elected to congress, her daughter was elected as a provincial governor, and by 2016 her son Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. was running for vice president, alongside Rodrigo Duterte (in the Philippines, the president and vice president are elected separately). He lost to Duterte foe Leni Robredo ; in July she was charged with plotting to overthrow the president and could face up to 12 years in prison.

Meanwhile, Ferdinand’s corpse has been interred with honors in the Heroes’ Cemetery. It is a symbolic step toward Imelda’s ultimate goal of Bongbong becoming president and restoring the family honor — and power.

How can such despotism prevail in a democracy? How do demagogues win the support of those who will suffer the most from their rule? In the film’s opening scene Imelda is being driven through a Manila shanty town. She opens the window and hands out banknotes to the swarming urchins and indigents. “She is still beautiful,” says one of the slum dwellers. “It was better during the time of Marcos.”

“The Kingmaker” screens Nov. 3 at 5:45 p.m. at the Brattle Theatre as part of Independent Film Festival Boston’s fifth annual Fall Focus Film Festival (Nov. 1-3).

Go to www.iffboston.org.


Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.