‘A Thousand Cuts’ Offers a Sobering Look at Filipino Journalist Maria Ressa’s Fight Against a Murderous Dictatorship 

A Thousand Cuts” opens with a “snapshot of our information ecosystem today.” Traditional news sources are being roundly ignored, cut off from social media sharing, while the opposition assembles alternative news sites fostering division, hatred and violence. Rodrigo Duterte rose to the presidency of the Philippines through the undulating brainwashing of the Mocha Girls and the plain man-to-man talk coming from the top of an overcrowded and underfunded prison system. Meth rots your teeth, and the incoming administration swore to fight the dental and societal decay by drilling junkies and capping suspected drug dealers. Vigilante justice was encouraged. Killers were promised impunity. Within three hours of Duterte’s inauguration, three bodies were found. News outlets which reported it in a negative light were hated passionately, we learn, because the president hated them.

“Just because you’re a journalist you think you’re exempted from assassination,” Duterte informs an assembly of the press. “Your premise is just because you’re a journalist you cannot be killed. It’s all wrong.” The documentary from Filipino-American filmmaker Ramona S. Diaz focuses on the most vulnerable journalist who watched Duterte’s watch: Maria Ressa, who founded the Manila-based news site Rappler. Ressa and her team of investigators “put faces and names on the people being killed,” and demanded the government be held accountable. Duterte countered by labeling the articles lies and innuendo, attempting to revoke the news organization’s license and running loyal follower Ronald dela Rosa, to the Senate. Bato, as he is known, would kill for the president. He says it straight to a camera.

In a battle for truth, journalism is activism, and Ressa is a tireless fighter against both online disinformation and the administration. Rappler took on Duterte shortly after he took office in 2016, and the social media’s role in silencing journalists immediately after suffering the backlash from it. While “A Thousand Cuts” is localized, it reveals a recognizable arc on a global scale, from the election of Donald Trump and the continued hostility he shows the free press to the media manipulation which elected Boris Johnson as Britain’s Prime Minister and forced Brexit onto the people. 

Fake news is the new gospel of the righteous right. It is not a source of information. It is a weapon, and “A Thousand Cuts” is a thin shield. Duterte’s administration shut down ABS-CBN, the Philippines’ leading broadcast network in May of 2016. He approved an Anti-Terrorism Bill which targeted dissenters of the Philippine government. The bill gave the government the power to authorize arrest without warrants, and weeks of detention without charges. Entertainer-turned-administration executive Mocha Uson, says her father was assassinated by what Duterte says are “criminals pretending to be politicians.” The popular online figure enthusiastically fingers possible insurgents, including Ressa, on her Facebook page Mocha Uson Blog.

In the Philippines, according to the documentary, Facebook is synonymous with the internet itself. Rappler’s rise as a startup news site depended on the platform. Duterte used it to target journalists. He rose on a promise of vengeance, declaring a vaguely defined drug war. He came into power therough a wave of fear and inspired it openly and strategically in supporters and enemies. One side welcomes the iron rule of law. The other only sees iron bars. The documentary shows how social media is methodically employed to divide the country. The president uses that to foster rage against press outlets. In the place where virtual meets reality, trolls are as dangerous as bombs. It starts small. Death threats flood the comment sections on any story critical of Duterte. Ressa explains how 26 fake accounts can affect 3 million other accounts. She uses the rise of the hate word “Presstitutes” as an example. Uson turns it into a trending epithet. Duterte supporters post live-streamed protests at the Rappler office and invite daily disruptions. Ressa meets with Facebook officials to have the violent posts and live streams removed, as is their policy. They unfriend her. The only reason Ressa isn’t arrested sooner in “A Thousand Cuts” is because #ArrestMariaRessa didn’t trend. 

Ressa thought Duterte’s veiled threat about journalists assassination exemption was stump speech patter when he first declared it. But she is forced to confront it as a reality when almost every single reporter at Rappler is individually designated enemies of the State for questioning his rule of law. “You are the critical ones. If you end up dead it’s not my fault,” Duterte tells a press contingent. “It means nothing to me.” Spoken like a true populist. He says what everyone is really thinking. And if they’re not thinking it, they also mean nothing to him. 

Ressa’s story grows in suspense as we fully expect her to disappear at any moment. The government she is covering boasts about killing their enemies. She puts on a bulletproof vest. The camera work captures the claustrophobic feel of the retaliation. We see the news lenses and microphones crowding in on a subject who is accustomed to reporting the news, not being part of it. After a visit to the U.S., Ressa steps off a plane in the Philippines and into immediate police custody. She had just finished a 14-hour flight and was declared a flight risk. Ultimately she is found guilty of cyber libel and tax evasion by a court in the Philippines.

Their government may not function beyond the stated goal of killing every young person with questionable teeth, but there is no erectile dysfunction in the top executive. Duterte asserts his manhood through the erect microphone of a political rally podium. Otso Diretso runs in opposition because she’s had enough. “The government is vulgar,” she says. Another news outlet gets slammed for investigating the accumulation of Deterte’s family wealth while he is in office. “It is no business of the press,” they are told. Diretso promises her administration won’t steal public funds. 

Even as they are filming a piece on journalists barred from presidential press conferences, the crew of “A Thousand Cuts” gets very candid statements from members of the Duterte administration. We get an insight into the government’s social media team, opportunistic police chiefs and a wide array of blind unquestioning loyalty. “It’s from the president, you have to believe it,” the international press is told by a true believer.

With a steady hand on contemporary issues, “Mocha memes,” and expertly edited footage, “A Thousand Cuts” keeps the presentation tight, delivering an easily followed story line, and makes the incidents which happen in the Philippines universal. This could happen anywhere, and will. What happens in America happens in the rest of the world, Ressa warns at one point. Whistleblowers say internet manipulation was tested in the Philippines and ported over to the U.S. The attack on journalism is only the first part. “What we are seeing is death by a thousand cuts on democracy,” she tells a group of people who weathered trolls to hear her speak. “Little cuts to the body politic.”

Ressa spent almost twenty years as CNN’s lead investigative reporter in Southeast Asia, she tells the camera in one of her very few personal revelations. She was drawn back to the Philippines by the promise of the People Power Revolution of 1986. Starting in Manila, citizens waged a nonviolent campaign of civil resistance against the regime of Ferdinand Marcos. It ended his 20-year dictatorship and installed Cory Aquino as the first woman to hold the office of President of the Philippines. Aquino had never held an elective office before. In 1987, she was named Woman of the Year by Time magazine, who also named Ressa Person of the Year more recently.

“A thousand Cuts” is imperative journalism solidly told. It finds a real hero in the resilient hope of Maria Ressa. “The only way to not be afraid is to understand the worst-case scenario, and embrace it,” she explains to her sister at one point, and goes on to live it. Ressa sums up the importance of her own cautionary tale by paraphrasing the poet Martin Niemöller. “First they came for the journalists,” she says. “We know what happened after that.” It appears despots are finally beginning to understand history, which makes these filmed documents essential.

A Thousand Cuts” releases Aug. 7 on VOD.