A Thousand Cuts: Review. Journalist Maria Ressa’s perilous mission to report on the current state of the Philippines. By Ray Lobo.
The Philippines has had a challenging historical journey: Spanish colonialism, American and Japanese occupations, the Ferdinand Marcos years, spiraling crime and terrorism, and the meteoric rise of President Rodrigo Duterte’s populist cult of personality. Maria Ressa, and the team of brave journalists she assembled for her news network Rappler, are sentinels keeping track of the Duterte regime’s policies.
Director Ramona S. Diaz’s documentary A Thousand Cuts drops the viewer into the hot stove that is the Philippines. Diaz introduces us to a motley cast of characters ranging from the young reporters on Ressa’s staff facing daily threats of imprisonment or death — journalist Pia Ranada is the very definition of courage in scenes where she resolutely asks Duterte challenging questions — to Duterte’s cronies — Mocha is a former dancer and social media hype-woman for Duterte and Bato Dela Rosa is Duterte’s national police chief head and a senatorial aspirant. When combative authoritarianism runs into dogged journalism, A Thousand Cuts shows us that the odds are heavily stacked in favor of the authoritarian.
Duterte’s bark matches his bite. When Duterte was still a candidate for the presidency, Ressa got Duterte to openly admit, “It’s going to be bloody…I have already killed three people.” Since becoming president, Duterte’s killings have grown exponentially. Duterte’s war on drugs has led to thousands of extrajudicial killings. Duterte is part Dirty Harry — a nickname given to him while still a mayor — and part Travis Bickle determined to clean up the “scum” of the Philippines.
What makes him all the more terrifying when compared to those film characters is that he has the executive power and popularity to kill en masse with little opposition. His threatening words to journalists like Ressa require a sangfroid the likes of which many of us are not capable of summoning.
The most insightful aspect of Diaz’s documentary is the commentary it makes, without naming any names, on the West’s authoritarian leaders. Ressa notes how Duterte and his followers managed to weaponize the internet. The Philippines was a Petri dish on how to mobilize people who exist in radical internet spheres and social media bubbles, and get them to vote, not for substantive change, but on the basis of resentment. A polarized information ecosystem, if tapped into effectively, not only mobilizes voters, but also gets fans of the elected authoritarian to harass truth-seeking journalists.
While Duterte’s war on drugs is a disguised war on the poor and political opponents, his many supporters living in their media bubbles, don’t see the forest for the online insults and character assassinations. Duterte’s tactic was mimicked by an orange-hued Western authoritarian we all know. Duterte was also able to mobilize an identity politics based on resentment. In one scene Duterte calls out Ressa’s company — Rappler — for being foreign owned and “pierc[ing] Filipino identity.” Calling out foreigners is yet another tactic mimicked by the previously mentioned orange-hued leader. Authoritarian mimicry comes full circle when Duterte accuses Rappler of being “fake news.”
Duterte also weaponizes gender. In his speeches he makes references to his genitalia and his potency. There is a scene in A Thousand Cuts of a speech in which Duterte jokes about the smell of women’s genitals. His audience heartily laughs. If that were not enough, he calls his journalist enemies “presstitutes.” All the while, Duterte rallies often feature young women dancing provocatively in order to pump up his audience. A Thousand Cuts makes us aware that the total breakdown of political rhetoric is now an international norm.
It is easy to be seduced into believing that Duterte is a harmless demagogue or that he is at least harmless to high-profile journalists with Western connections — Ressa has worked for CNN, and has received support from Christiane Amanpour and Amal Clooney. We must remember that a high-profile and Western connections were not enough to save journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Even if Duterte does not order the killing of journalists, he can make life miserable for them to the point where the harassment makes them give up. Ressa has been arrested twice on libel charges. Ressa was recently given six years in prison — a punishment she is currently appealing.
A Thousand Cuts makes it quite clear that Ressa is fully reconciled with the possibility of death or imprisonment. In an intimate scene her sister breaks down and cries over the possible fate that awaits Ressa. We as viewers share her dark foreboding. The existence of serious journalists is as precarious as ever.
We hope you're enjoying BRWC. You should check us out on our social channels, subscribe to our newsletter, and tell your friends. BRWC is short for battleroyalewithcheese.