Filmed in 1998, this scene from the newly released documentary Imelda offers a wonderfully revealing glimpse into the personality of the Philippines' former First Lady—a cunning child with a remarkable gift for both self-delusion and self-preservation. Marcos, who turned 75 last week, always maintained her childlike sense of entitlement, despite the harsh realities of life. As the film recounts, when the judges of a Miss Manila contest spurned her in favor of another competitor, the youthful Imelda complained so bitterly to the capital's then mayor that he offered her an alternative award, dubbing her "the Muse of Manila."
After her marriage to Ferdinand Marcos, the voracious ambitions of this spoiled child and her dictator husband were to have an appalling impact on the Philippines. In 1972, the Marcoses did away with all democratic institutions. They turned the media into a propaganda tool, commandeered the courts, imprisoned any opponent bold enough to speak out against them and allegedly looted the impoverished nation.
Imelda, the second film by U.S.-based Filipina Ramona Diaz, is an art-house hit in the States. But the star of the show has not taken kindly to the unflattering portrait—however tempered by the director's subtlety, however softened by Marcos' own displays of disarmingly sweet self-deception. Last month, she obtained a temporary restraining order that delayed the film's distribution in the Philippines for 20 days pending a further hearing, thus scotching its scheduled premiere on July 7. Interviewed by TIME in Manila, Marcos calls it a "vicious" film, lamenting: "It's so ugly, and I've always maintained that the only things to uphold are the good, the true and the beautiful. We have to reject what's ugly." She adds: "The best compliment I ever got in my life came from Chairman Mao of China. When I went there, at a time when nobody wanted to touch China with a 10-foot pole, Mao told me that I'm beautiful because I'm a natural, and he said natural is perfection. So, no character assassination can diminish me and my perfection."
As Marcos tells it, Diaz tricked her into cooperating by saying she was merely working on a master's thesis at Stanford University's film school. Marcos has also complained that, after their initial contact a decade ago, "I never heard from [Diaz] again until a few months ago, when she called to inform me that her film Imelda will be shown at the Sundance Film Festival." Diaz says she first interviewed Marcos in 1993 for a thesis on the history of Philippine women, then contacted her a few years later to propose a documentary about her life and flew with a professional film crew to the Philippines in 1998 to follow Marcos around, returning in 2001 for wrap-up interviews. "She did give us access [for this film]," Diaz says. "We were in her bedroom. We stayed with her at her home. She was open and gracious when we were filming her." Diaz says she repaid Marcos by allowing her to make her own case, to dominate the stage as she's never been allowed to since she and her husband were deposed from power in 1986. "I wanted her to like the film," says Diaz. "That's her truth up on the screen. I was very careful not to make it a hit piece because making it a hit piece would have been so easy with Mrs. Marcos."
It's true that Marcos gets her say in the film as never before, but the effect is often spectacularly self-destructive. Sure, it might have looked like callousness when she pranced around a countryside of squalor and misery bedecked in jewels and glamorous gowns, but Marcos insists in the film that she was doing it only for the masses: "When I became First Lady and I would be meeting kings and queens, it would take me an hour to dress up. But when I went to the provinces, it would take me an hour and a half or two. Double the time! Because they need a standard. They need a role model. They need a star—especially in the dark of night ... I had to be a star for the poor people, and at the same time, I had to be a slave. I had to enslave myself so that everybody became a star." If Imelda is a hit piece, its subject wielded the bludgeon herself.