Marcos brings myth-making to the big screen



As a movie, “Maid in Malacañang” is almost certainly among the worst the year will produce. As a historical narrative, the melodramatic hit describing the last days of Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos’ family in the presidential palace is a parody.

As propaganda, it ticks all the boxes.

It’s the year of the family. In May, his son Ferdinand Marcos Jr., known as Bongbong, won the presidential election with a landslide — the culmination of a decades-long effort to rehabilitate the fallen kleptocrat’s name. Never mind that the campaign has little to say about details like the post-pandemic economic recovery, and instead focuses on sepia-tinged fantasies. The dynasty scion relied heavily on the disillusionment of voters who saw little material benefit from the 1986 People Power Revolution, and the majority of young people, who have no memory of the brutal years of martial law. Six years of Rodrigo Duterte, a leader with little time for civil liberties, also helped.

“Maid in Malacañang,” with older sister Marcos Jr. Imee serving as executive producer, is an undisguised, big-budget effort to cement those gains.

Touted to audiences as “the untold truth”, the film, released earlier this month in the Philippines, actually reworks the story to benefit the family. Marcos’ exit in February 1986 following mass protests is described as a generous decision, taken to avoid bloodshed. They were the real victims, the plot insinuates, who simply loved the people. The contrast between the weeping family with their loyal servants and the torch-carrying marauders outside Malacañang Palace – opposition leader Cory Aquino is shown ruthlessly playing mahjong with nuns, as the country teetered on the edge – is impossible to miss. A song about betrayed love plays as angry protesters walk through the gates.

In another scene, one of many overworked one-on-ones, Bongbong comforts his impeccably haired mother Imelda as she cries. “We will be back,” he said. The camera pans to her jeweled shoes and a cataloging sticker on the sole. 2022. Just in case viewers aren’t clear.

Using the glitter of the silver screen to sell a more palatable version of history and reality is not a new tactic. The Soviet Union did. We’ve all watched “Top Gun” and “Rocky,” with their invincible American heroes, the epitome of soft power. The Chinese government has for years encouraged blockbusters filled with patriotism and bravery, nurturing nationalist sentiment. Shaking the audience with drama, all uncomfortable issues carefully worked out, works.

And of course, when it comes to cinematic ventures like this, a clear continuation of the election campaign’s use of black-and-white footage from Marcos’ glory years to glorify a brutal period, the history is not about the past. It is about the present.

The film makes no effort to address the immediate causes of the 1986 uprising. The background – the assassination of opposition leader Benigno Aquino, the rise of his widow Cory, a snap election in February, and Marcos’ efforts to claim victory – is hardly processed. The cruelty and large-scale corruption of the regime are swept away. In the film, Imelda worries about children’s photos and memories as she leaves – never mind that she actually took silver, gold, and millions of dollars in jewelry. “No government is perfect, remember that dad,” one of the daughters tells Marcos, a man who plundered the state to the tune of $10 billion, tortured and killed thousands of his opponents .

This places the Marcos family – and in particular Imee, whom the father describes as a selfless servant, his maid in Malacañang – as those guiding events, along with the patriarch (actually in very poor health, due to a autoimmune disease lupus and associated kidney conditions) sullen, worried about his people, worried that he would not be remembered as a brave soldier. He makes thunderous speeches to each of his children, anoints his worthy successors. Few concessions are made to the role of rebel military leaders, to the Roman Catholic Church, to Cory Aquino and the thousands massed on the thoroughfare known locally as EDSA, or even to the US government – which has backed Marcos until, through Senator Paul Laxalt, they told him to “cut and cut clean.”

The departure – an embarrassing defeat in the face of popular anger – is portrayed here as a selfless and dignified act. The family has time to debate clothes, to discuss the future, to give motivational addresses to distraught staff. They help rip Imelda’s robes to tie yellow tails around the servants’ heads (the color of Cory’s followers, and thus a security measure), and continue walking calmly towards the waiting helicopters. The reality was different. Contemporary accounts such as that of loyal and longtime aide-de-camp Arturo Aruiza describe Marcos sitting “in the midst of pure ruckus”, desperate efforts to open a safe, documents being burned. Photographs taken after the Marcos left show a mess of papers, books, boxes, uneaten dinner.

Finally, the film also sets out to demonstrate how much the family was adored by ordinary people – represented here by the trio of maids who tell much of the story, a Greek chorus, and a comic relief. They are the ones who pour the last caviar to the Marcos children.

The film’s blatant rewriting of historical fact has not gone unnoticed. There is a counter-narrative in planning. The Catholic Church – which played a central role in 1986 – objected to the depiction, particularly of the Carmelite nuns, who did not play mahjong, but in fact prayed and fasted as the tension mounted. The head of the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board was forced to respond to critics by saying the film did not “claim to be a documentary”.

What’s less clear is whether anyone was paying attention to this minor detail.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• The return of Marcos turns on manipulated nostalgia: Clara F. Marques

• The powerful machine that led Marcos to victory: Daniel Moss

• Fidel Ramos: A Legacy of Prudence and Courage: Howard Chua-Eoan

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and editorial board member covering foreign affairs and climate. Previously, she worked for Reuters in Hong Kong, Singapore, India, UK, Italy and Russia.

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