‘A Thousand Cuts’ Review: Alarming documentary reveals Maria Ressa’s fight for press freedom in the Philippines

A still from A Thousand Cuts by Ramona S. Diaz. Courtesy of PBS/Frontline.

In a country embattled with an authoritarian president, Ramona S. Diaz’s documentary shows how an attack on press freedom and weaponized social media can turn a nation in favor of its enemy.

“I appeal to Filipinos listening to protect your rights,” journalist Maria Ressa said in a public statement following the announcement of her conviction of a cyber libel case in June 2020. “We are meant to be a cautionary tale. Don’t be afraid. If you don’t exercise your rights, you will lose them.”

In 2016, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte rose to power for his widespread campaign to violently end the drug trades in the Philippines. Rappler Founder and CEO Maria Ressa and her team have diligently covered Duterte’s campaign since the beginning, and his questionable murders of thousands of unnamed victims have led many to believe his war on drugs is actually a war on the poor.

In A Thousand Cuts, the new documentary/political thriller brought to us by Ramona S. Diaz via PBS and Frontline, she chronicles Duterte’s rise coupled with his consistent jabbering to take down Ressa and the Rappler network. And, for any concerned citizen, the point at which a government or any person in power strives to take down its journalists, you know a country is in danger.

As a Filipino-American, I am concerned and care for the motherland and feel it is a part of my duty to do my part in knowing what is going on over there. The disgust I felt while watching Duterte parade around his rallies, going up onstage during a speech and referring to the microphone as his penis, joking about having so much money yet can only think about dried fish, which reminds him of the scent of a woman, was just appalling to see. And the worst? His people and followers suck it up. They laugh with him and holler in support.

The misogynistic and authoritarian nature of Duterte doesn’t fall far from the United States’ own Donald Trump — and it is so frustrating to see.

We see Duterte consistently slam down tough questions from Rappler reporters, including this viral clip of him slamming down Rappler’s Pia Ranada, along with all the other journalists in the room.

Even worse, the pro-Duterte supporters seem so brainwashed and misled that when provoked, his army of online defenders go on to send viral death threats (arrest the journalists, bomb their offices and rape Ressa, to name a few) to deface Rappler and lead the common public to question the validity of their “fake news.”

One of the most fascinating parts of the documentary was seeing how Ressa breaks down the current journalistic ecosystem — how algorithms work against us and how social media and Internet propaganda are targeted to feed us some news and not others. Her data revealed a network of 26 fake accounts who have effectively spread false Duterte propaganda to over three million users, including widespread hate comments and death threats, calling Rappler’s many female reporters “presstitutes” as disturbing viral videos of Duterte supporters going into the Rappler lobby threaten to kill Ressa.

The Philippines is also one of the most active countries to use the Internet, spending more than 10 hours a day using it, and the most time spent on social media globally. The harm that media disinformation can create can be detrimental.

A Thousand Cuts started filming in 2018 and, for those unfamiliar with Ressa, follows her as she travels to the U.S. for conferences fighting for press freedom. She is lauded by the likes of Amal and George Clooney, is named one of Time magazine’s Person of the Year in 2018 for being a “Guardian” in the War on Truth, only to return to the Philippines and get arrested at the airport.

To this day, Ressa has faced two arrests and posted bail eight times. Her latest civil libel conviction, which includes up to six years in prison and a fine, is the latest blow against press freedom in the country.

A still from A Thousand Cuts by Ramona S. Diaz. Courtesy of PBS/Frontline.

When Ressa founded Rappler in 2012 with three other female colleagues, they fought against disinformation in the Philippines. They put out stories about potential corruption in Duterte’s family as well as how his anti-drug campaign led to thousands of shady killings in the streets of the Philippines. Duterte proceeded to attack them and refer to the press as “sons of bitches” who aren’t exempt from assassination.

The juxtaposition between Rappler’s bright, mostly young colleagues who strive to reveal the real stories behind the smokescreen of news, versus Duterte’s armies who parade and rile up crowds at rallies with sing-a-longs and have head Mucho Uson leader/entertainer go to social media and dance at rallies like a Pussycat Doll, is baffling. Even more revealing is the president’s head of police, the macho bald-headed hound-dog Bato Dela Rosa, whose loyalty to the president goes unnoticed as he goes from calling Philippine prisoners meth addicts to singing a ballad with them next.

In a time when journalism is under attack and truth and democracy are questioned, A Thousand Cuts reveals the ongoing battle we have towards a true democracy. Corrupt governments and tactics are still enforced and, as Ressa warns, if we don’t exercise our rights, we will lose them. Her tale is a cautionary one, and she believes that the Philippines can and will be a better place.

“What we’re seeing is death by a thousand cuts of our democracy. Think about the bleeding, little cuts to the body of politics, to the body of Philippine democracy, and when you have enough of these cuts, you are so weakened that you will die. We at Rappler … We will not duck, we will not hide, we will hold the line.”

Is she naive? That’s for you to tell. But her boundless energy, wit and intelligence is inspiring for such difficult times. Her tale is gripping, exciting, ongoing and changing, and worth audiences around the world to know and revere.

Thousand Cuts debuts in select theaters and virtual cinemas on Friday, August 7th.

https://www.athousandcuts.film

A Film by Ramona S. Diaz

Produced by Leah Marino, Julie Goldman, Chris Clements, Carolyn Hepburn

Official Selection – Sundance Film Festival 2020
Official Selection – SXSW 2020
Official Selection – San Francisco International Film Festival 2020
Official Selection – HotDocs 2020
Official Selection – Full Frame 2020
Official Selection – AFI DOCS 2020
Winner – Best Documentary – DocEdge 2020

Release Date: August 7 nationwide
Running Time: 98 minutes
Language: English and Tagalog with English Subtitles

Thank you to David Magdael & Associates for screening.

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