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Lauren Greenfield on Her Imelda Marcos Documentary ‘The Kingmaker’

Lauren Greenfield The Kingmaker Documentary
Courtesy of LAUREN GREENFIELD/SHOWTIME

Photographer-turned-filmmaker Lauren Greenfield has directed several critically acclaimed docs, including HBO’s “Thin,” “The Queen of Versailles” and “Generation Wealth.” On the heels of that last film, which looks at consumerism, beauty and gender through the lens of a warped American dream, she raises the stakes in her career-long examination of greed-driven corruption with “The Kingmaker,” which showcases Imelda Marcos’ crimes as former first lady of the Philippines and her attempts to rebuild her empire. Here, Greenfield chats about the morality of Marcos, why she gravitates to intimate, dynamic portraits and the one-minute ad campaign that made her a star.

“The Kingmaker” uses images in a visceral way. Can you explain how you sharpened your eye? 

I worked as a photographer for 18 years before I made my first film. Using composition and color to communicate information has always been an important part of my process. For example, in “Queen of Versailles,” the interviews resemble the environmental portrait, a term [photographer] Arnold Newman created. The environment around the person tells as much about them as the physical portrait does. For “The Kingmaker,” I used bold visuals — dictator chic — that exalted a French aristocracy-inspired, lavish environment to tell the story, either as the expression of opulence or of former opulence.

What’s it like being a visuals-first storyteller?

The difference when I went from photography to documentary filmmaking was: Even if there’s something that’s imperfect, grainy, dark or out of focus, if it tells the story, you have to use it. Where I could use visuals to enhance the storytelling and tell you something about Imelda or her world you wouldn’t know otherwise, I tried to do that.

How did you contend with Marcos’ untruthfulness? 

It’s difficult to communicate that your character is an unreliable narrator because people tend to believe what you put in front of them. We carefully intercut what Imelda and her family’s view of history was — which did not align with any objective accounts or eyewitnesses — with the truth-tellers’ versions.

Did you have other methods of conveying Marcos’ lies? 

She’s constructed her own fantasy world wherein she’s still a queen, surrounded by gold and Picassos. We see how she’s presenting her life to the audience, to me, to the camera. She controls it. In the interview, we see her asking, “Does my stomach look too big?” I ask her to look at me, look at my camera, and I take the picture, and she’s looking away. I included that to make the audience think about whose story it is. Is Imelda in control of the story? Or is the filmmaker in control?

How did you balance Marcos’ absurdity with the film’s serious discussions of sexual assault and assassinations? 

I incorporate black comedy in my work because it deals with hard, confronting issues. Having some humor is a way to bring the audience in. The film becomes very serious, so the humor is at the beginning. Once you know about martial law and the torture behind it and [current president Rodrigo] Duterte and the street killings, nothing is funny. I think the last laugh is [Marcos’] Freudian slip: “It’s terrible when you lose your money, I mean, mother.”

After your 2014 #LikeAGirl ad campaign for Always, critics referred to your work as emotionally exploitative. Did you expect the controversy? 

There are always male trolls for anything feminist on the internet. The positive reaction to the ad was overwhelming. It was seen by over 200 million people. There were thousands and thousands of letters from regular women, famous women, people tweeting about it. The language changed. “Like a girl” meant something bad, an insult. As a result of the campaign, it turned into a call to action and empowerment. My documentaries and photography are my real work, but the three weeks we spent doing the #LikeAGirl campaign is probably what I’m going to be most known for. 

Things You Didn’t Know About Lauren Greenfield

AGE: 53 HOMETOWN: Boston COLLEGE: Harvard FIRST INTERNSHIP: National Geographic MOST AWARDED FOR: The 2014 #LikeAGirl ad, which won an Emmy and the PR Grand Prix at Cannes Lions Intl. LINGERING THOUGHTS ON MARCOS: “I don’t actually think she’s evil.”