A THOUSAND CUTS: A THOUSAND SHAFTS OF LIGHT
Nicanor G. Tiongson
For Filipinos who have been living with fear, disgust, and anger under the shadow of Duterte’s murderous war on drugs, his wanton and unconstitutional suppression of free speech, and his deadly war on journalists and the truth, this Ramona Diaz documentary on Maria Ressa and Rappler’s relentless struggle to expose the abuses of the regime comes as a much-needed ray of hope, a source of enlightenment, and a call to reaffirm one’s commitment to truth and democracy.
Award-winning documentarist Diaz (Imelda, the Kingmaker, The Motherland) tracks the ups and (mostly) downs of Ressa and her team’s work as professional journalists for four years, from June 2016 when Duterte came to the presidency of the Philippines to June 2020 when Ressa was found guilty in a cyber libel case whipped up by the Department of Justice against her, retroactively using a cybercrime law on her case. Chronologically, the film documents the attacks made on her and Rappler, both in court by government officials and in social media by an army of paid trolls – as an “outlet of fake news,” an American-owned company with foreign interests, a bunch of mercenary or ACDC (attack-collect-defend-collect) hacks, and secret members of Matrix, the group supposedly plotting a coup against Duterte. These assaults are presented in relation to larger events which may explain the timing, context or purpose of the diatribes– the State of the Nation (SONA) addresses from 2017 to 2019; the senatorial elections of 2018, where all opposition candidates were routed; the interviews of Duterte by Ressa and Ranada, and the documentarist’s own interviews with police general “Bato” de la Rosa who executed the first phase of the war on drugs, and Mocha Uson, dance entertainer-turned-“queen of fake news,” who runs the vast system of disinformation for Duterte. While the docu graphically explains how fake news are started by 26 sites and then disseminated to three million accounts, it also reveals Ressa and Rappler’s growing network of support in the Philippines and abroad.
As a documentary, the film effectively employs the cinema direct technique, avoiding a voice over or narrator and, instead, shooting scenes and then editing them so that they can “speak for themselves.” Wisely, Diaz also avoids the usual talking heads format, which usually becomes stilted and boring, preferring to follow her subjects with a hand-held camera in their daily activities—Ressa as she meets with her staff, arrives at the airport and is arrested, documents on her cellphone the panel discussion where she is lauded by George Clooney for “shining a light,” and explains to a group of Filipino progressives how government is subjecting democracy to a thousand small cuts, that will weaken and eventually kill her. This technique is bound to result in some awkward angles or shots, but surprisingly these only help to underscore the actuality of these scenes. Sound is recorded live and clearly throughout. Non-diegetic music is dispensed with to preserve the realistic tone. At most, ominous drone sounds are occasionally used to underscore the gravity of specific incidents.
A signal achievement of the documentary is that it makes palpable for the audience the very real effects of Duterte’s attacks and threats on the person of the journalists themselves, whose job it is to find ways and means to get at the truth at the risk of their own lives and freedoms. Pia Ranada, who irked Duterte with her pointed questions about Bong Go’s alleged corruption, was publicly shamed in front of Malacanan officials and journalists when the president accused her and Rappler of disseminating news that are “rife with innuendoes and pregnant with falsity.” Patricia Evangelista recounts her experience with two EJKs in one neigborhood in one night, which had such a chilling effect on her that she became paranoid about everything for days. The young journalist Randall (?), whose beat covers the small barangays which are the targets of tokhang-happy policemen, says the images of bloody bodies lying on sidewalks are so overwhelming they haunt him even in his dreams. For these young and idealistic journalists, these experiences might have been the cause to have second thoughts about their profession, except that they had a leader whose fearlessness and fortitude were a constant source of strength and inspiration.
Maria Ressa grew up in New Jersey, U.S.A, with her Filipino immigrant family and had to work 150 percent to be accepted by her schoolmates. After the EDSA revolt of 1986, she decided to live and work in the Philippines to help in rebuilding a country ravaged by Marcos and his cronies. She worked as CNN bureau chief in the Philippines and then in Indonesia. In 2012, she established Rappler as an independent online website based in the Philippines. A no-frills, down-to-earth person wearing close-cropped hair, rimless glasses, and colourful business suits, Ressa followed Duterte’s rise to power and his first four years in Malacanan, soon earning the special ire of the president because she pointed out contradictions in his role as president and his kill,kill, kill strategy for eliminating drugs, and exposed the corruption and incompetence of Duterte’s ministers, which belied the President’s posturing as a champion of integrity and good governance. Duterte’s henchmen in social media harassed her with threats of bankruptcy, violence, and rape, while the government filed one case after another against her, raising the bail amount each time. But these attacks only made her even more resolute, her journalism even more uncompromising, even as it raised her higher in the estimation of progressive pro-democracy organizations abroad. To her sister’s fear for her safety, Ressa replied: think of the worst that can happen and embrace it; then you conquer your fear. And your self-pity, one may add. Her acceptance of the worst has made Ressa unshakeable and unsinkable. In these times of darkness, Ressa is not only a rock offering safety and stability, but also the shining light standing on that rock, beaming hope to all freedom-loving Filipinos.
But Ressa herself would be the first to say that her success and that of Rappler are not hers alone. She has been blest with a team of similarly iron-willed and principled journalists, both veteran and neophyte and mostly women, who seem undeterred by threats on their lives, among them, Glenda Gloria, Chay Hofilena, Lilibeth Frondoso, Gemma Mendoza, Miriam Grace Go, Pia Ranada, Patricia Evangelista, an Rambo Talabong. Moreover, she has earned the respect of international organizations who in their own ways have expressed solidarity with her advocacies and outrage at Rappler’s ordeals under a fascistic regime. The 2018 Time Magazine award, which acclaimed her as one of four “guardians of the truth,” and the endorsement of her cause by world figures like George and Amahl Clooney may not have prevented subsequent arrests and harassment, but they have certainly brought her struggle and that of the Philippines to the attention of the world. This kind of international support for journalists stems from a conviction that every country in the world today is connected to what Ressa calls a “global system of disinformation.” Journalists around the world are an endangered species and we neglect them at the cost of our own ruin. Adapting Martin Niemoller’s famous quote on the apathy which empowered Hitler’s regime, Ressa says: First they came for the journalists, and nothing was heard of ever since.
A Thousand Cuts becomes even more significant when seen as part of a larger movement against authoritarianism today. After the Aquino assassination in 1983, beleaguered journalists banded with progressive artists and all freedom-loving Filipinos to combat the Marcos dictatorship. Then, filmmakers, especially those of Asia Visions, documented the abuses of the conjugal dictatorship and the protest movement against the Marcos regime that would be suppressed in the Marcos-controlled media, in films like The Arrogance of Power, Signos, and Lakbayan. Today, embattled journalists must join ranks with like-minded artists who have already created works denouncing EJK, such as the award-winning films Aswang, Buy Bust, and Watch List and the plays Tao Po! and RD3RD; ouevres unmasking the techniques for rapidly disseminating fake news, such as the plays Game of Trolls, Sincerity Bikers Club, and Pilipinas Kong Mahal with all the Overcoat; and works that resist historical revisionism by reviving the horrors of martial law, such as the films ML, Respeto and Liway, and the plays Buwan at Baril, Pagsambang Bayan, and Indigo Child. A Thousand Cuts now takes its preeminent place in these works of protest against the Duterte regime.
Since her conviction in June 2020, Ressa and Rappler have continued, and have even stepped up, their fight for truth and democracy, as in their coverage of the billions allegedly lost to corruption during the tenure of Duterte-appointed officials of Phil Health and the on-going senate investigation into more billions of pandemic funds paid to a company called Pharmally, which was allegedly not even qualified to bid but nonetheless received the payment in advance of the delivery of PPEs. There is no doubt that Rappler will work doubly hard to keep the people properly and promptly informed on the issues, fake or real, that are being hurled at each other by trapos (traditional politicians) in the run for the presidential and senatorial elections of 2022. Meanwhile, Ressa’s tireless and intrepid pursuit of the truth has just earned her the highest recognition, the Nobel Peace Prize (shared with another journalist), the first ever awarded to a Filipino, which will go a long way in shoring up Ressa and Rappler’s credibility and the validity and timeliness of their continuing struggle for freedom and democracy. The film’s end song speaks for Ressa and Rappler: “A thousand cuts won’t be enough/ to keep my fists in these cuffs.”
A THOUSAND CUTS: Into the Flesh but Not the Spirit
Ramona S. Diaz’s latest documentary, “A Thousand Cuts”, uncovers how Maria Ressa, founder and CEO of Rappler news organization and 2021 Nobel Peace Prize awardee, hurdles the legal, ethical and technology challenges hurled at her by a conspiring army of authoritarian political leaders, beholden government agencies, and rabid social media trolls. With empathy for Ressa’s steadfast moves to fend off baseless accusations, Diaz stirs a combustible mix of archival and new materials that includes among other things speeches and interviews ranging from the insightful to the inane, footages of arrests, street corpses, and election campaign antics, and screenshots of posted threats and lies. Through co-producer Leah Marino’s deft editing, Diaz unravels a thorny and twisted world where, as the title suggests, investigative journalists like Maria Ressa are relentlessly attacked and silenced for upholding democratic values and defending constitutionally-enshrined principles like respect for human life, the right to information and freedom of expression.
Diaz ushers us into this world by opening the film with Ressa meeting with her staff and then inviting viewers in a live stream session to watch with her President Duterte deliver in 2018 his annual State of the Nation Address or SONA where he declares the escalation of his drug war under the pretext of saving human lives over human rights. The scene then shifts to the title sequence where Diaz introduces Ressa as a torchbearer of press freedom and Duterte as her nemesis for running a “fake news outlet”. The contrast is deliberate and Diaz segues to Ressa at another staff meeting where she characterizes the information ecosystem as an arena of conflict between dark and light groups.
In succeeding scenes set against the backdrop of the 2018 midterm elections, Diaz brings out and follows an array of personalities representing each group such as former Assistant Secretary Mocha Uson and former General Ronaldo “Bato” de la Rosa for the administration along with their Diehard Duterte Supporters or DDS and Samira Gutoc and other Otso Diretso senatorial candidates for the opposition with journalists Patricia Evangelista, Pia Ranada and Rambo Talabong from Rappler. In between the different vignettes about the candidates’ speeches at different rallies and fora, the film details how various cases filed by the government slowly pile up against Ressa. Warrants of arrest are suddenly served to Ressa at odd times or upon her arrival at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport. The stream of cases never seems to end and the film closes in 2020 with news of Ressa’s conviction by a Manila court on cyberlibel charges filed by businessman William Keng (the verdict is appealable to the Supreme Court). As supertitles announce Ressa’s seven new pending cases related to tax issues, Ressa, unflappable in a presscon, describes the court’s decision as a “cautionary tale” meant to intimidate those who aim to challenge the administration. She appeals to all not to cower in fear lest everyone loses their rights. The film’s closing contrasts with the beginning where at the start, Ressa observes the President from afar and at the end, becomes his target.
The esteemed broadcast journalist Walter Cronkite once remarked, “Freedom of the press is not just important to democracy. Freedom of the press is democracy”. These words come to mind as Diaz repeatedly shows how the incumbent administration regards truth as “collateral damage”. Its widespread breakdown is thought-provokingly illustrated in the film by animated web diagrams of deceitful social media posts spreading at an exponential rate (e.g., from 26 to 3 million accounts in a matter of hours). The imagery resembles an accelerating metastasis bent on ravaging the credibility of the press critical of the drug war and bashing them as “presstitutes”.
Much of the resulting ruin is due to algorithms embedded in social media apps which track individual preferences and purchase patterns. Features like keywords, meta-tags and hashtags are utilized to trigger an avalanche of automated unfiltered messages and goad vulnerable readers to relay such messages to their friends or followers. These scenes where Ressa narrates how she and her team rigorously tailed and analyzed inflated posts stick out as one of the film’s riveting highlights. These incisively demonstrate the politics of engagement baiting and weaponizing of social media platforms for specific political gains. In line with the documentary form’s didactic tradition, these make the audience literate about the mechanics behind viral messaging and the epic surge of fake news.
In another enlightening scene, Ressa cites disturbing research findings by Christopher Wylie, the whistleblower who resigned from Cambridge Analytica. According to Wylie, developing countries like the Philippines have been lab sites for constructing networks of disinformation. The configuration of these networks has become a template in the cybersphere for various populist parties or lobby groups in other democracies seeking to sow discord and polarize public opinion on controversial issues and do a demolition job on the system of checks and balances in duly-elected governments. Thus, Ressa emphasizes that the Philippine situation is not an isolated local case. Pernicious factions or malicious influencers have popped up all over the world applying the dataveillance tactics tested in countries like the Philippines. In response to the chaos wrought by these groups, social media giants like Facebook and Twitter have suspended or removed their accounts. Unsurprisingly, DDS trolls whose accounts are shut down for their “coordinated inauthentic behavior” are shown in the film decrying Facebook’s purge and venting their ire at Ressa by stalking and demonizing her.
Early in the film, Ressa calls her staff’s attention to the trolls’ wanton revisionism and repudiation of traditional journalism practices. She also astutely points out that the mainstream press is blindsided by the trolls’ obnoxious propaganda in the cybersphere. Of these two groups that collide in the information economy, Diaz allots more screen time on the former than on the latter. It would have been interesting for Diaz to also take a deep dive into the latter and explore why the mainstream press is sluggish in counteracting the aggressive DDS or why Rappler is alone in its fight. When former President Trump turned his Twitter account into his bully pulpit spewing invectives against the mainstream press, veteran news organizations like the New York Times launched a fact checking offensive and published a daily count of Trump’s lies. One wonders how such efforts have been matched by the country’s major dailies. And so certain questions arise: What factors constrain the country’s mainstream press to act? Is the mainstream press less digital savvy and organized than troll groups? Why is the mainstream press more defensive than proactive?
Diaz’s documentary does not delve into these questions. Her treatment of the problem is humanist rather than topical. As a result, the film foregrounds the story of a woke female journalist who remains unbowed in the face of invisible adversaries eager to crush her. Her resolve can be unflinching but she can also balk at minor concerns. Ironically, in an amusing incident with her sister in New Jersey before an awards event, Ressa is more squeamish about wearing an evening dress with stylish high-heeled shoes than with the multiple court cases tossed at her.
Despite the blatant threats and vulgar misogynism, Ressa admirably manages to still talk of love of the enemy as the antidote to hate. Her fierce commitment to protect civil liberties and stand up for the truth enables her to rise above a regime of intolerance and impunity. Fittingly, her courage has been internationally heralded when she, along with Russian dissident journalist Dmitry Muratov, was awarded the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize. Such an accolade can only strengthen her resolve. A thousand cuts will pierce fragile flesh but for Ressa, these will not slay her staunch spirit.