Malice in Wonderland: The Imelda Marcos Story

Dec 15, 2008
*Special to asia!

The looking-glass world of Imelda Marcos comes under scrutiny in a documentary film.

Everything Imelda did was, in her delusions — to benefit the common folk. “I had to be both star and slave,” she says in the movie, as Filipino journalists Pete Lacaba and Jo-Ann Maglipon report how they were imprisoned with “no trial, no charges, no nothing” and Jesuit priest Father James Reuter recounts the Marcos regime’s human rights violations.

An American journalist, the former ambassador to the Philippines, and the former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs provide some American insight. They portray her as a superficial woman who lived it up while her people suffered. Dressed to the hilt, Imelda met US Presidents, danced with Henry Kissinger, went to Libya to talk to Muaamar Gaddafi and met the Pope.

The movie is at its best when comparing the diva’s recollections with others’ contradictory memories. “We have no human rights cases in the Philippines,” she insists, and Diaz cuts to witnesses who testify to the 70,000 political detainees over the years of the Marcos regime and to journalists who describe their own torture. “It is not expensive to be beautiful. It takes only a little effort,” says Imelda, and her couturier, Christian Espiritu, recalls seamstresses going blind from hand-embroidering thousands of her gowns day and night to meet her tight deadlines.

In his review of the movie, Ty Burton of the Boston Globe says: “And yet Imelda is oddly engaging in her rose-coloured perceptual prison. You understand why she still gets hugs and autograph requests on the streets of Manila, why there’s an Imelda Marcos shoe museum in the town of Marikena, and why [director Ramona] Diaz herself views her with something close to fondness.”

Imelda has become a deified mother-figure. When she returned to the Philippines after exile in Hawaii, she was received by people who kiss her hands for blessing and by a priest who proclaims the return of “Mummy Imelda”.

She enjoys the same veneration as did the wife of another dictator, Juan Peron of Argentina. Eva Peron, or Evita, had a huge impact on Argentine politics. She was worshipped by the working class, mocked by society ladies, and misunderstood by the military establishment. Her rise from being a humble villager in the backwaters of the interior, to a status as one of the most powerful figures in a male-dominated culture has some parallels in Imelda’s story.

Evita was born in the village of Los Toldos in 1919, one of five illegitimate children. At the age of 14, determined to be an actress, she ran off to Buenos Aires with a young singer.

As an aspiring 15-year-old actress, Evita faced almost insurmountable odds in landing jobs in the theatre. She led a miserable existence, often getting sick and never having much to eat. This changed when a rich manufacturer fell for her and provided her with her own radio show. Soon Evita’s voice became a regular feature on the airwaves of Radio El Mundo.

Like Imelda, she had boundless energy: she worked frenetically and made powerful friends. Her lack of talent and sophistication did not stop her from attracting some very important people to her cause. Among her admirers were the president of Argentina and the Minister of Communications, who controlled all the radio stations.

Evita met Colonel Juan Domingo Peron, the reputed power behind the new military government, at a fund-raising event for victims of the 1944 San Juan earthquake, in which thousands died. She wasted no time in catching the eye of the widowed colonel and later left the fundraiser on his arm.

Though exactly half Peron’s 48 years, Evita played a big part in her husband’s rise to power. When Peron became Minister of Labour and Welfare, Evita convinced him that his real power base should be the previously ignored masses of labourers living in the slums.

[There is great footage in "Imelda" showing Imelda standing shin-deep in mud planting rice in a show of solidarity with the rural poor who were until then ignored.]

The ministry instituted minimum wages, better living conditions, salary increases, and protection from employers. It was not long before Evita called the labourers to Peron’s aid. An army coup was on the brink of success when Evita called all her chips in. More than 200,000 labourers entered the capital city and demanded that Peron be their president. The colonel accepted the mandate of the Argentine people.

Evita cemented her ties with the workers by establishing the Social Aid Foundation. Through this charity, scores of hospitals and hundreds of schools were built, nurses trained, and money given to the poor. Although a cult was developing around her personality, she would always tell the people in her countless speeches that all the credit should go to her husband and that she would gladly sacrifice her life for him.


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vivienne khooOnce a lifestyle editor at a website, a newspaper journalist and a food editor, Vivienne Khoo writes about luxury hotels, food and travel whenever she is not sub-editing. The perfume industry and essential oils are her pet topics at the moment.

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