Directed by Ramona Diaz
Starring Maria Ressa, Rodrigo Duterte, Mocha Uson
With Imelda, her 2003 film on the former First Lady, documentarian Ramona Diaz gave us a glimpse into the wack-a-doodle mind of Imelda Marcos (2019’s The Kingmaker serves as a dark, de facto sequel). But with her new film A Thousand Cuts, Diaz gets to profile a more down-to-earth personality made compelling by the fact that she is still in the thick of her conflict: embattled Rappler CEO and executive editor Maria Ressa, whose diminutive figure is the perfect embodiment of a David battling the Goliath that is the Duterte regime.
The title comes from a speech Ressa delivered during a forum at De La Salle University last year. “What we are seeing is death by a thousand cuts to our democracy… Think about the bleeding, right? Little cuts to the body politic, to the body of Philippine democracy. And if you have enough of these cuts, you are so weakened that you are going to die.”
Ressa is referring in general to the swift turn Philippine politics has taken back to the path of populist dictatorship; specifically, her audience is privy to the constant harassment the Duterte administration has been piling onto Rappler, the news website she co-founded in 2012 with fellow journalists Glenda Gloria and Chay Hofileña. These women were astute enough to realize that journalism had to move into the digital age, and so they hired digital natives to beef up their website’s staff; in exchange, their twentysomething charges got to witness the chutzpah and moral fortitude displayed by their veteran leadership.
Chutzpah and fortitude are soon urgently needed: Rappler investigative reporter Patricia Evangelista declares on-camera that three hours after Duterte’s inaugural address, the first casualty in the war on drugs was discovered in the streets of Manila. Diaz shoots her talking head segments with Rappler’s reporters either against dark backgrounds or in the underlit interiors of cars on the way to assignments: It’s a shrewd technique that underscores the somber work of bearing witness to the Duterte regime’s dispiriting “either-or” proposition between human rights and human lives, and its horrifying legacy of extrajudicial killings.
It is this dogged pursuit of accountability which earned Rappler the ire of the President. Trumped-up cyberlibel charges against Ressa are cooked up, Duterte’s troll army spreads conspiracy theories saying that Rappler is a CIA-funded operation and pelts Ressa with rape threats, and the CEO herself is arrested twice. But even as her reporters break down under the toll of their jobs, Ressa remains clear-eyed and calm, matter-of-factly discussing worst-case scenarios with her top lieutenants.
Diaz’s narrative is framed by the 2019 midterm elections, and situates Ressa’s struggles within the depressing deficiencies of the Philippine electorate. The filmmaker gains access not just to Ressa and the inner workings of Rappler, but also to the congressional campaigns of Duterte surrogate Mocha Uson, and senatorial candidates Ronaldo “Bato” dela Rosa and Samira Gutoc. What emerges is a portrait of systemic misogyny: While dela Rosa coasts merrily along with his empty platitudes and karaoke renditions of John Legend’s “All of Me”, Gutoc’s advocacy for women’s rights struggles to connect with voters. And while Diaz makes an effort to humanize Uson—at one point, even jailed senator Leila de Lima chides people for slut-shaming her—it is obvious that the Queen of Fake News is too oblivious to realize that her patron’s dismissive attitudes towards women is also partly to blame for her own failure to gain a seat in Congress.
Ultimately, A Thousand Cuts is compelling because it serves as a litmus test for the Philippine viewer in the thick of the realities it portrays. Its release on YouTube for 24 hours on the date of Philippine independence is not an accident: Do you watch this administration’s methodical dismantling of democratic institutions and throw up your hands in despair? Or do you watch Ressa as she casually says that she will take the heat so that her organization can function…and feel inspired?
Ressa, by her smiling, crinkly-eyed demeanor, is a compelling argument for the latter. While she says that she was compelled by the bloodless 1986 ousting of Marcos to make the Philippines her home, in many ways A Thousand Cuts implies that the country is less of a home than it is her advocacy. Celebrated internationally for her fearless crusade to keep journalism alive under Duterte’s many assaults (Ressa is on a first-name basis with George and Amal), one of A Thousand Cuts’ most charged sequences has Ressa practicing her “We hold the line” toast at last year’s TIME 100 gala, a moment made more human when she makes a face at the gown that her U.S.-based sister is foisting upon her.
You may also like:
- Some of the earliest documentaries about Manila will be shown at Cine Adarna in March
- Why this docu on Jewish refugees in the Philippines should be a source of Filipino pride
- Review: ‘The Kingmaker’ is the history lesson every Filipino, young and old, needs to see
- “Perception is real, the truth is not,” says Imelda in hot new docu on her life
For the international viewer, A Thousand Cuts serves as a warning. At one point, Ressa tells a Washington DC audience that Cambridge Analytica, the consultancy firm whose unauthorized harvesting of online data ultimately helped get Trump into the White House and resulted in a scandal that tainted Facebook, beta-tested its data manipulation on Philippine social media accounts first. The message is clear: The thousand little bloodlettings being inflicted on Philippine democracy could happen to you…if it hasn’t already.
A Thousand Cuts is available to stream on YouTube until 6pm on June 13, 2020, Saturday