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IMELDA MARCOS AND HER CINEMATIC DREAMS

Aditya Sunday September 28, 2014

IMELDA MARCOS AND HER CINEMATIC DREAMS  

When it comes to evoking the figure of "Madame" Imelda Marcos, especially in the West, all the wildest fantasies pop up. And it's not about politics and her "dictatorial" ruling, but all about her "follies", and more precisely about her mythical 3000 pairs of shoes, her countless handbags, and even her mink fur coats, which were exhibited in Malacañang Palace after the fall of Ferdinand Marcos (I was there in 1986). Thereafter, it was a "mis en scène" in numerous plays and musicals, like the recent Here Lies Love by David Byrne on Broadway and London. Among the many films on or about her, The Red Shoes, directed by Raul Jorolan (2010, with Marvin Agustin), featured actress Tessie Tomas as a spiritualist. And the same Tessie impersonated Imelda in a show at the Manila Film Centre. More seriously, there was a very interesting documentary on Imelda by Ramona Diaz (2003), which infuriated “Madame”, who tried in vain to stop it from being screened. 

However, beyond the usual clichés and fantasies, one must remember what the former First Lady of the Philippines, now a "living legend" at 85, has done (in her own super-egocentric way, of course) for Culture, the Arts and Cinema, however controversial it may be. When she was in power (and what power she had!) with her husband, President/dictator Ferdinand Marcos, she had pursued a dream of "pure beauty" for her country. The Philippines was then a real economic power in South East Asia. Imelda was herself a former beauty queen (first crowned the "Rose of Tacloban" (1947) and later Miss Leyte, and Miss Philippines in the 1950s) when she met Senator F.Marcos and married him. She wanted to give her country a cultural status equal to that of developed countries, of USA or Europe...

The CCP and the Manila Film Centre as Instruments of Cultural Power

Her biggest project, financed with State money without any clear control, was the famous Cultural Centre of the Philippines (CCP) in Pasay. Inaugurated in 1969, this massive concrete block facing Manila Bay is active even today, since most cultural events happen in Metro Manila. Imelda attended its 40th anniversary in 2009 like she was back home! However, as far as cinema is concerned, her most ambitious project remains the Manila Film Centre, where most film activities, including a National Film Archive (which, alas, didn't really take off), were to happen. 

The building, located south-west of the CC complex, was designed by architect Froilan Hong, and was supposed to open at the end of 1981 to host the first Manila International Film Festival in January 1982.As the deadline was very tight, about 4000 workers were hired who worked round the clock in three shifts, which almost evokes the construction of a pyramid in Egypt! But the construction of that imposing building was marred by a deadly accident on Nov.17, 1981, when a huge scaffolding collapsed, and about 170 workers fell and were almost buried under quick-drying wet cement. Rescuers were allowed on the site only nine hours after the accident and a number of workers (it appeared later that there were only a dozen) were indeed buried alive in cement, which is a kind of horror film in itself.There was subsequently a popular rumour that the building was haunted by their ghosts…

Even though the Prime Minister disapproved a 5 million dollar subsidy meant for the film festival, Imelda found a way to raise money for HER film festival, which actually took place on18-29 January 1982. A number of international guests were invited, including Satyajit Ray, and American actor George Hamilton, a personal friend of Imelda's, who later testified in her favour when she was accused of stealing money in the USA. Imelda paraded and even sang in front of her guests. The Best Film Award went to 36Chowringhee Lane, by AparnaSen (India). The festival ran for another year, and that was the last we saw of that "world class film festival"…

But Imelda had other ambitions related to cinema production too: in the stream of the Manila Int. Film Festival, the government created the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines (ECP), a structure which was to produce "quality films", manage the Manila Film Centre, create a Film Rating, and establish the National Film Archive. In fact, the ECP did produce a few good films, which are still landmarks today, such as Oro, Plata,Mata (dir. PequeGallaga, 1982), and Himala (Miracle, 1982), by Ishmael Bernal, starring Nora Aunor at her peak. Both films were recently restored by FDCP. Other less successful works were Soltero, by Pio de Castro III (1984), Mysteryosatuwa, by Abbo de la Cruz (1984), and Isla, by Celso Ad Castillo (1985, co-produced by Viva Films). However, as such films were not successful at the box-office. ECP later produced films known as "Bomba films", mainly sex-orientated, and of course more popular with the audience. Eventually, ECP was dissolved in 1986, after the EDSA revolution.

After the Fall

As expected, all political foes of the Marcoses were fiercely against the project and its astronomical costs. In a famous speech Senator Ninoy Aquino called it a "Pantheon for Imelda", nicknaming her the "Eva Peron of the Philippines". Not entirely wrong, and itinfuriated Ferdinand Marcos (Imelda was also nicknamed "Iron Butterfly" by her enemies). Outstanding film people and famous directors like Lino Brocka and Mike de Leon also criticised the project, and had to fight severe censorship of their own films. Later, Lino Brocka (who died in a car accident in 1991) would also criticise President Corazon "Cory" Aquino for her weak governance, and her incapacity to solve poverty problems in the country. This is partly true even today, with Noynoy Aquino, her son, as President…

Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos were ousted in March 1986, by the so-called "EDSA revolution", and that was the end of Imelda's cultural dreams. After the 1990 earthquake that hit Manila, and damaged the buildings, the Manila Film Centre was closed, but was rehabilitated in 2001.It then hosted the famous "Amazing Show", where all performers were trans-genders, something that might not have pleased Imelda.The Film Archive project was also abandoned,a tragedy really, since most of the important films of Filipino cinema are now missing, in spite of the efforts by FDCP to restore some of them. 

Thus, Imelda's cinematic dream came only partially alive.However, in spite of all the political criticism and the tragedy of the workers who died, the Cultural Centre stands today as a concrete cultural monument, and hosts many important cultural and cinematographic events, including Cinemalaya, which celebrated its tenth anniversary this year (see report). And at 85, Imelda Marcos was there to attend the screening of Marikina, by Milo Sogueco, where she has a special appearance at the Shoe Museum (no coincidence!). She is a living ghost, haunting her own creation 45 years later. Will this also be her "pantheon", as Ninoy Aquino said more than 30 year ago? Reality sometimes goes beyond fiction…

One of her daughters, Imee, now governor of Laoag (IlocosNorte) is also interested in cinema, and backed some projects, mainly in the animation field, when she was a Congress woman. Same blood.

by Max Tessier

Obituary

Jocelyne Saab (30th Apr, 1948 - 7th Jan. 2019) Jocelyne Jocelyne Saab, widely considered one of the most important contemporary Arab filmmakers, passed away after a brave and difficult battle with cancer on 7 January. Although death had long been hovering, many of us in contact only through texting or phoning, were taken by surprise, as the usual season's greetings had been exchanged with no hint that this beloved member of our film community would leave us within a week. Read More...