By Pete Vonder Haar | January 28, 2004

A subtle change of attitude takes over the audience when watching “Imelda,” Ramona S. Diaz’s documentary on the life of former Philippines first lady Imelda Marcos. At first, one almost suspects Diaz wanted to portray Imelda as a sympathetic figure: Diaz follows Imelda’s start as a beauty queen, and interviews her childhood friends, who offer warm reminiscences of the young woman who would go on to marry Ferdinand Marcos. Then we get to the woman herself.

Diaz followed Imelda Marcos for a month, interviewing and filming her throughout the country. That she was able to get Imelda to open up about her past so much is testament to the skill Diaz used in shielding her subject from others she interviewed, including opposition leaders, former U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Stephen Bosworth, and former U.S. Asst. Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke. Their testimonials cement the fact that the gap between Imelda’s recollection of historical events in the Philippines and what actually occurred is wider then the Gulf of Leyte.

Moreover, Imelda Marcos appears to occupy that stratum of total unreality reserved for long-standing political figures, the über-rich, and televangelists. Imelda maintains she needed to possess such a lavish wardrobe because it inspired the poor to dress better. She also tells Diaz that her husband declared martial law in 1972 and abolished both houses of Congress because he so valued the idea of democracy.

Diaz also interviews the younger Marcos: Ferdinand Jr. (or “Bong Bong,” as he is known), who encourages viewers to “look beyond the shoes” (referring to accounts of Imelda’s 3000 pair collection), this isn’t difficult to do, because her obsession with shoes is merely symptomatic of her total disconnect with the real world. She blithely asserts that her position is a result of hard work, and should be possible for anyone. Meanwhile, during her tenure as first lady, she attempted to increase the cultural lives of the Filipino population by building huge galleries and theaters that the vast majority of the population couldn’t afford to attend.

Imelda also adheres to some bizarre philosophy called “the 7 paths to peace,” listening to which reminds one of Harland Williams’ hitchhiker rant from “There’s Something About Mary.”

I had my worries that “Imelda” was going to try to sugarcoat the record of the Marcoses, and gloss over the horrible abuses that took place during their regime. I needn’t have worried, “Imelda” is eminently successful at portraying the former first lady’s flaws because it allows her to describe them herself.

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