Saw Ramona Diaz’s Imelda with Barb last night, and my head is still reeling. It is a fine, fine documentary, and I am glad that there will be a theatrical release in the U.S. at some point this year; more people should see it (though a DVD is apparently coming out in 2005).
The film’s chief virtue — and there are many, from Grace Nono’s soundtrack to the careful editing (more about this in a second) — is the fact that Diaz lets Imelda talk on and on. We are treated to what seems like a severely delusional Imelda, completely in denial of reality — or so we are led to think.
Imelda starts off portraying Imelda as a charming, witty woman who, even in her current, less glamorous state, exudes a faded, almost regal presence. The charm is absolutely critical to understanding Imelda and, most important, her large retinue of hangers-on and thousands of Leyte residents who voted her back into office. But very slowly, the film darkens — martial law couldn’t be portrayed as anything but, though certainly the Marcos government tried hard to — and Imelda’s fantasies about representing the people become, at turns, laughable and horrible.
There is some amazing film footage as well, from ’70s propaganda reels to shots of Imelda dancing with Kissinger, or George Hamilton singing. (The end credits alone — where you see Bongbong and Imee dancing to Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough” — are priceless.) One scene — a little tendentious, but very effective — juxtaposes Imelda’s maids airing out an entire rack of her ternos, with squatters living by a railway.
Perhaps my only real quibble with the film is this. Okay, there were some omissions — no Dovie Beams, no mention of Mindanao, despite some tantalizing footage of a dance troupe dancing the singkil and the infamous Tripoli meeting with Qaddafi — but perhaps understandable given the limitations of the length. (Diaz explained later that she didn’t include events that couldn’t be verified independently, but it doesn’t excuse the oddly Manilacentric view of things.)
Okay, back to my personal quibble, which isn’t really one as you’ll see in a second: The viewer is initially seduced, but not necessarily repulsed. That is, one comes out of the theater with a vision of a wacky but charming woman, but not of one that was deeply corrupt and responsible (if indirectly) for human rights violations. Perhaps the fact that the film would never have been made without Imelda’s consent explains this. (Diaz did say during the Q&A session that Imelda had to leave the room a couple of times so as not to answer questions — whether they were confrontational or embarrassing or “too emotional” was not clear.) You come out shaking your head, but not necessarily your fist.
The film takes a fairly even keel throughout, but it is only sympathetic to her in the sense that we hear Imelda explain her side of the story. Imelda doesn’t shy from showing her and her tacky extravagance in a bad light; the camera lingers on her face in moments of self-doubt, and slows down the film to somewhat crudely emphasize this point. Events are indeed placed in the proper historical context — we see Pete Lacaba and Jo-Ann Maglipon talk about being tortured — but the audience is oddly distanced from this (as was, in her own way, Imelda). But there is no mourning, few tears, no talking head explicitly reminding the audience that we are watching a criminal. (To her credit, maybe Diaz felt little need to beat the audience over the head with it.) But there is little sense of outrage; one comes away with the feeling that the enormity of her crimes are still not so keenly presented.
And perhaps this is also the other great virtue of this excellent, must-see documentary: that the enormity of her crimes are not so keenly felt in any case. The screaming, adulatory crowds of people that greet her at every campaign stop, the landslide election victories of her son and daughter — Diaz never poses the question “Why are they even back?” Instead, she, in her filmic wisdom, lets the film speak for itself, and one is faced with the horrible answer: Perhaps one feels no real outrage in the film because, as should be clear by now, an unfortunately large number of Filipinos didn’t either.