Friday, November 07, 2008

Imelda Marcos introduced, Pete Lacaba elaborated

Presented Imelda (Ramona Diaz, 2003) to my gaggle of American youths and while they didn't take to it with the same enthusiasm as they did to Insiang, they did find fascinating the idea of a woman who owned thousands of shoes (the final tally is 1,060 pairs, including one battery operated model that sparkled in the dark).

There's nothing really new about what Diaz deals with in her documentary--basically skims over Imelda's early life; her meteoric rise to fame as senator's, then president's wife; her years as right hand to Marcos' increasingly insatiable pair of hands during the Martial Law years; her decline, fall, period of exile, eventual homecoming, surreal rehabilitation (of sorts) and present state of--well, that part's complicated.

There's plenty to gawk at in this documentary, not the least of which are the shoes (the girls had a field day oohing and aahing their color and variety) that emerge one after another like so many stars, forming a collage of Imelda's face on the video screen. Perhaps the documentary's greatest virtue is in shaping all the stories about Imelda, from truthful to apologetic to delusional to downright bizarre, into an overall narrative as told through her own words, in a series of lengthy interviews Ms. Diaz did with the former First Lady (Imelda has since attempted--and succeeded for a time--to have the documentary banned when it screened in the Philippines).

The early Imelda impressed the kids; "she's so pretty," was a common judgment; some couldn't believe it when I told them that she was over seventy years of age at the time the doc was made (I couldn't resist mentioning that considerable plastic surgery had as much to do with her looks as the natural youthfulness of Asian women). The comments dried up as the documentary advanced; Diaz used the simple but apparently effective stratagem of allowing Imelda to speak freely, then showing testimony that either qualified or contradicted her words. Sometimes opposing testimony wasn't even needed--the kids stared in openmouthed wonder while she voiced out her wish that an assassin's bolo knife had been wrapped in a yellow ribbon (to make it prettier, she said) before it stabbed her eleven times (I happen to know the plastic surgeon--yes, she had one, denials notwithstanding--who fixed the scars). Later Imelda launches into one of her famed philosophical discourses, where she describes how man can be symbolized by a pie divided into three slices (body, spirit, soul), and how a missing slice can leave the pie looking like a Pac man ("she's got to be on drugs," one young man told me).

The girls were more direct in voicing their opinion--while most hated her with a passion, one did believe that there's nothing shown here that definitively proved that she did anything wrong. "It's all her husband's fault," the girl declared, and wouldn't change her mind, even when the others ribbed her mercilessly about it (I had to at one point step in and stop their teasing). One did admit that she'd be willing to be Imelda's friend, if only she could have a few pairs of those shoes. Almost all expressed a wish to visit the Philippines, if only to see the collection (I told them the shoes were enshrined in a museum in Marikina).

Imelda has oft been compared to Eva Peron (asked why she refuses to allow Andrew Lloyd Weber's well-known musical to be performed in the Philippines, to which she replies: "because I am not a prostitute"). Perhaps a more fruitful comparison might be made instead to Norma Desmond, the aging diva from Sunset Boulevard (another Andrew Lloyd Weber production, come to think of it, based on Billy Wilder's film): she's out of step with the world, and all her loyalists are working heart and soul to keep her in that state, and woe to the unfortunate man or woman within earshot who should happen to try and wake her up. As Joe Gillis put it: "You don't yell at a sleepwalker--he may fall and break his neck. That's it: she was still sleepwalking along the giddy heights of a lost career." Imelda is both tribute to and expose of (at least to those who know little about her) that lost career, and the woman who both lived and dreamed it.

I mentioned knowing some of the faces in the film--Fr. James Reuter ("arrested in the '70s; during the 1986 presidential snap elections, ran a backup independent vote count"); Behn Cervantes ("arrested and imprisoned"); Pete Lacaba ("arrested, imprisoned for two years, tortured; wrote the few openly anti-Marcos films made while Marcos was in power").

Some of the more hardened youths wanted to know more details about Lacaba's incarceration. I handed them Lacaba's own testimony, written in his own blog. The immediate reaction was to say "that's crazy;" more telling, however, was the room's emotional atmosphere after I'd given a few details about his interrogation ordeal. Before this the boys and girls were enjoying Imelda's wackiness as the eccentricities of yet another nutty international celebrity (an older Paris Hilton, they thought, or Britney Spears). At least Norma sleepwalking hurt only herself and those who loved her; Imelda's waking dream meant the very real suffering of an entire country, for decades. Confronted with a human face representing the cost of Imelda and her husband's eighteen year rule, the laughter died down considerably.

Lacaba towards the end tells of how his deposition and ten thousand others helped win a human rights lawsuit against the Marcoses amounting to a billion dollars. He never for a moment believed he would see the money; neither did I, and neither did any of the kids who read his story--it's almost an abstract figure in its immensity.

There was, however, an interesting footnote. A deal is being made, to pay a hundred million dollars to the complainants (Lacaba included) in exchange for the dropping of all charges. Where a billion seems silly, a hundred million does not (especially where the Marcoses are concerned). Suddenly, Lacaba is confronted with a troubling choice: take what amounts to a million dollars in hard cash and a lifetime of fair financial comfort in exchange for one's right to persecute a man for taking away two years of one's life (not to mention admitting one's incarceration and torture was "a figment of my overheated imagination"). I put the question to the kids.

Male and female, the answers were pretty much unanimous; "take the money!" One did opine that he understood where Lacaba was coming from--this was honor Lacaba was talking about (nevertheless, he'd take the loot). "I can do a lot of good to myself and my loved ones with that money," one boy tells me, "than I ever can trying to sue that woman's ass."

A girl did say "He's a brave man, sir." Many asked if he took the money, to which I noted this: that at 111 pounds at the time of his arrest and having just recovered from pulmonary tuberculosis (he experienced a recurrence during his prison term), the weakest of them--girls included--could have beaten him up. But he has, far as I know, a will of iron; he never broke during his two years' imprisonment and far as I can tell he's never given in on anything in his life. Knowing Lacaba his record and a bit of the man himself, he's probably still poor as a church mouse, writing away his news articles and film scripts, seeking what in effect is the ultimate verdict on a crucial period of his life.

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