‘What do you do when the president lies?’: A Thousand Cuts film review

Ramona Diaz’s ‘A Thousand Cuts’, a documentary on the struggles of a free press under the Duterte administration, was released in the Philippines at a very significant time. It was released on Independence Day, days before the guilty verdict on the cyber libel case against Maria Ressa and days after Congress submitted to the president for signing the Anti-Terrorism Bill that would allow  authorities to arrest people they designate as terrorists without a warrant. Meanwhile, with the quarantine still ongoing, the Filipino nation’s fate plunges deeper into the mercy of an administration that has prioritized mobilizing the military over providing medical aid and mass testing amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

‘A Thousand Cuts’ follows Rappler CEO Maria Ressa along with several of the organization’s writers’ critical reportage of the administration’s war on drugs, and their struggle against disinformation instigated by no less than the President himself. The first few minutes of the film sharply establishes the political climate and the state of press freedom in the country: As Ressa briefs Rappler’s writers shortly before they begin covering the 2018 State of the Nation Address (SONA), she calls on news editor Pia Ranada, informing her that she will later on be asked about what it was like to be banned from Malacañang. We see President Duterte beginning his speech by warning us that the war on drugs will be “as relentless and chilling as the day it began.” We see Ressa discussing the roots of disinformation, with the alternative news portals amplifying certain issues, but never citing any traditional news sources.  

This portends Ressa and Rappler’s fate for the rest of the film, as they put faces and names to the people being killed, and demanded the government to be held accountable. They first brace from online attacks accusing the news organization of being American-owned. These attacks were triggered by Mocha Uson, the person behind a blog with a following of 5 million and appointed Assistant Secretary of President Communications Operations Office by Duterte, when she speculated that Rappler was cooperating with the Central Intelligence Agency. We then see this allegation coming out of President Duterte’s mouth in his SONA, broadcasted nationwide. Things only go way south from here, as Rappler goes on to face 11 different cases in a little over a year. Ressa asks, “What do you do when the president lies?”

In the film, Ressa tells us that the end goal is to make you doubt the facts and question institutions. Diaz cleverly conveys this confusion, and actively recreates the way truths and stories are being twisted online. The film at times interlaces Diaz’s footage with slanderous comments and misleading headlines and captions from alternative news portals, citations of related critical articles from Rappler placed alongside interviews with government authorities giving seemingly harmless answers. The film unravels how Duterte’s words, and Uson’s sermons on submitting to the President and respecting his authority are perpetuated a million times over by the administration’s trolls be it in online comments or even outside the Rappler office with their middle fingers up.

Diaz also plays with the contrasting appeals of the film’s featured personalities. There was Maria Ressa who the film follows through her multiple overseas speaking engagements, alongside people deemed by Time Magazine as the most influential people of 2019. Compare Mocha Uson, filmed while she was a nominee of a partylist running for a seat in Congress, who admittedly forgot to focus on her message because she wanted to entertain a less than energetic crowd, and lamented that she isn’t taken seriously enough because of people’s assumptions on her educational background. See also Samira Gutoc walking in crowded marketplaces, greeting and shaking the hands of the market goers passing her by, ferociously calling out the current administration for perpetuating violence and normalizing rape jokes, and doing her sit-down interviews in a car with a child sleeping on her lap versus senatorial candidate Ronald ‘Bato’ dela Rosa, whose appearances in the film are marked with catchy jingles playing boisterously, the macho man filmed swimming laps in the pool, leading a motorcade for his campaign in a motorbike, and often offering the unsolicited serenade to his audience after discussing his platform. There was Rappler, dealing with one case after another, doubling their security and asking its employees to be wary of anything suspicious; writers Patricia Evangelista and Rambo Talabong reflecting on the trauma of seeing a bloody body sprawled on the streets day by day, and Ranada demoralized from being denied journalistic access. And there’s Rappler’s staunchest critic, the President himself, blatantly threatening journalists with arrests, badmouthing Rappler and investigative journalists even in PDP-Laban campaigns, alluding to a “bitch” in media, and releasing an unverified matrix of an ouster plot against him implicating Rappler among others, with the people holding on to nothing else apart from his word.

As disinformation and abuse of power sink their nails further into press freedom in the Philippines, it is made clear that those who do hold the line for honest and critical reporting in the country have a lot to lose. The film echoes Ressa’s call for support from the world to help the Philippines in its fight for press freedom, to help in keeping loud the demands to hold the government accountable, to continue to act in keeping democracy alive. In a query on why the rest of the world should care about what’s happening in the Philippines, Ressa connects the narratives of U.S. and the Philippines through the Cambridge Analytica scandal, where social media accounts in both countries were compromised, and illustrated how tactics used to manipulate the voting decisions in the US during presidential elections were first tested in the Philippines where it was easier to get away with impunity.

But the film also poses an important question to the Filipinos, a question that determines our involvement in holding the line. In the film, we see a concerned citizen asking Maria Ressa how one could feel more like a victim in the drug war. Indeed, how does one defect from supporting the administration’s war when one does feel like they have benefitted from it, when it has made the streets appear safer because more CCTVs are installed on dark alleys, when they are convinced that it was disobedience, and not injustice, that killed the victims of the drug war? Ressa answers with a 21st century spin on a famous Holocaust poem by Martin Niemöller: “First they came for the journalists. We don’t know what happened after that.”

‘A Thousand Cuts’, which began with Diaz’s “vague notion” of wanting to cover Duterte and the drug war, eventually closes in on the struggles of Rappler and Ressa, the administration’s handpicked cautionary tale of dissent, only one of a thousand cuts to the body of Philippine democracy, perhaps a distant reality for those who are neither journalists nor exercising their democratic right to be critical of the government’s actions. But at present, with Duterte having signed the Anti-Terrorism Bill into law, the terror starts to be more widely shared. Now, we are each in a battle waiting to begin with an unrelenting administration, with nothing but our word against theirs. [P]

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